Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Back to the HOKEY POKEY
I know that people don’t care to sit down and read long post.   Like everything else in this time of computers, twitter and cell phones, people want to read a few paragraph from a blog they are following, make a comment and then move on to the next post.

For this reason I have decided to breach the subject of DEATH in two or even three installments.

"The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far from being on a cruise ship.   Most of your time is spent lying on your back.  The brain has shut down.   The flesh begins to soften.  Nothing much new happens and nothing is esxpected of you." 
STIFF, by Mary Roach

I recently attended the funeral of my wife’s aunt.  It is not the first funeral I have attended, but the first commercial funeral I have attended in a long time.   That funeral and my approaching birthday (no. 72) have me rethinking about death; and how death is handled by different cultures and how it is perceived by different individuals.   As I have said before: Death is the final debt we owe to nature for our time alive on this earth – but that’s bull shit.   I don’t question so much why I must die; but the real question seems to be why have I lived?

The only answer I can surmise seems to be that at some random point in time, one of the millions of sperms in one of my fathers random ejaculations (who ever the hell he was) happened to connect with a random egg passing through my mothers uterus.  The whole thing seems perfectly random: I am here via the butterfly effect described in the Chaos Theory.   I am a random male, that had a random birth, that has made random choices in life, that has led me to be a random old man, expecting a random death at sometime in the random future.

Without getting any more metaphysical than that, in the following post I will write about how death is handled in our culture, and how it differs from the death rituals I experienced while living in the Indian and Eskimo villages of Alaska.

But first a little background.

From the earliest times death has been feared and misunderstood by man.   Early humans left their dead for the animals and the environment to consume, as evident by early archeological finds.   Early man was fearful of the unknown, fearful of death and fearful of the dead; and somewhere along his cognitive development the idea of gods and ghost and an afterlife evolved.

Early Neanderthal burial vaults have been discovered that contained weapons and personal artifacts, evidence of a belief in an afterlife.   Pharoses of Egypt were entombed with riches, personal belongings and even slaves.   Michael Crichton describes a Viking funeral pyre in his book Eaters of the Dead in which all preparations were made for the Viking chief’s journey to Valhalla. (Though fiction, Crichton researched his material thoroughly.)

Now we have the advent of major religions and their drive to take control of death

Ars Moriendi (The art of dying), a Latin text dating about 1415, contains woodblock prints presenting the Christians’ dilemma at the time of death.  

The dying man is surrounded on one side by the demons of hell and on the other side by saints and angles.   A battle is in progress for the dying man’s soul.   The only chance this man has is for the last rites to be administered in order to purify his soul so that he might be received sinless by the body of angles.   Early Catholics feared the prospect of sudden death because dying unconsecrated could result in being abducted by demons into the inferno of hell.

The early Catholic Church, with its doctrine of purgatory, was able to manipulate huge financial benefit from the policy of priest receiving money to pray to the saints for the deceased’s speedy trip through purgatory.  The more someone paid the more prayers the priest would offer – thus insuring the rich man a prominent place in the heavenly realm.

(Side note: even today the Catholic Church is one of the biggest individual owners of funeral homes in the city of New York – again profiting from death.)

Notice the early church was all about men going to heaven – the Christian church has never be overly concerned about women, other then to pose them as wanton, temptresses, debasers of men and the cause of original sin.

The image of The Church as the protector from death was lain bare during the mid-14th century when the Black Death swept through Europe, killing perhaps half the Continent’s population.   During that time traditional burial customs collapsed as most victims were consigned to mass graves.   It has been claimed that not only the dead, but also the dying were buried in public pits in an attempt to stem the contagion.

Today death is a big business.   Funeral homes are never short of business and they prey on the grief of surviving family members to sell the biggest and most elaborate death ritual the family can afford.   Cemetery lots increase the value of land from cost per acre to cost per square foot.   Massive cemeteries blanket our country and tie up valuable land from productive use for the many centuries to come.

The dead in our culture are feared and considered an unnatural macabre spectacle to be endured, avoided and dispensed with as fast as possible.   Death is a damn profitable business, and the major recruiting tool for religions of the world.

I know reading a post about death is a bummer - but maybe it can help you

The Ol'Buzzard


  1. Ritualized send offs for the dead have been around as long as the other oldest profession. I see it as just that final form of state/religious control exerted on us as we leave this planet. So of course there is profit in it, just like the other oldest profession.

    I grew up in a family that favored cremation and getting the dearly departed on their way as fast as possible and with as little fuss as possible. So I have a somewhat jaded attitude about the ceremony of planting people in the ground. The ceremonies are not for the dead, they are for those the dead left behind.

    Good post. I liked your paragraph on random.

  2. It's odd how talking about death has such a stigma attached to it for some people. I wonder if other cultures that more readily accept death, have the anxiety concerning death that our culture does. You know, the whole dread thing.
    I also like your paragraph on the randomness of birth/life.


COMMENT: Ben Franklin said, "I imagine a man must have a good deal of vanity who believes, and a good deal of boldness who affirms, that all doctrines he holds are true, and all he rejects are false."