A Brief History of Death

A Brief History of Death
Who needs a history of death, you may ask? You’re here one minute, gone the next. Everybody knows that. It’s natural.

Actually, that’s an interesting attitude.

In Western culture, death isn’t natural any more. Social science defines natural death as “one that doesn’t matter”. In the wild, 90% of animals never make it to maturity. Animals sniff death, and move on. Survival of the herd is tantamount. In our society, death matters greatly, for two reasons.

First of all, it reminds us of the fact that we, too, will physically die at some point. This is not a popular notion! Most people will tell you they believe in an afterlife. They believe this afterlife is pleasant. But then they’ll say they are afraid to die. Are they confused? No. They are afraid of the dying PROCESS, not of BEING dead. It is the thought of pain, loss of control and relying on machines that makes people cringe.

And yet millions of dollars are spent developing those very machines and drugs to put death off! In one year, Americans spend enough money on anti-aging products to keep an entire African country alive and well for a decade. We create legal papers to dictate our wishes when “the time comes”. We are given three days leave (maybe) from jobs to mourn our dead, get over it, and go back to work. No, death isn’t a natural experience at all. A Syrian proverb states that Birth is the messenger of death. Eeesh.

Secondly, death is memorializing our loved ones and our popular ones. We preserve, gift box and hide dead people, putting up markers so others know they are there. We visit the graves, leave gifts, pay tribute. Social scientists call this ancestor worship. Common? Yes, this custom is totally ingrained in our lives. Natural? Not a bit. According to those same scientists, "Society is a structure erected against nature, which obscures natural death."

See? Isn’t this interesting? Now we’ll take a look at other forms of ancestor worship.

Once upon a time, some cultures took a dead body and laid it along the main road. If nature took its course, and the body was consumed by bugs, beasts and birds, the family was honored that their loved one was 'worthy' of the great spirits. If the body was untouched and left to decompose, the family was shamed.

In Biblical times, bodies were laid to rest in a cave, which was then sealed. Or it was laid on the ground, in an out-of-the-way spot, with rocks piled over it. While there is no definitive reason given for the Jewish custom of leaving rocks on headstones, some give this reference for the tradition. Many see it simply as an indication that the one buried was visited and honored.

Some Native American tribes placed their dead cocooned in trees, to be closer to the Great Creator, and to let Mother Nature take care of them.

In many African villages, family members are buried in the middle of the village, and the graves are covered with cement. Names are carved into the wet cement. When dry, it provides a smooth, hard surface for the daily routines of life.

Burial at sea goes back to the first time man tried to conquer and control water. The tradition continues today in naval circles worldwide. Even non-sailors can arrange for such a disposition with societies dedicated to that ceremony. In all forms of story telling, death is often indicated when certain characters board watercraft and sail off into the sunset. A Viking funeral consisted of placing the warrior's body on a wooden boat, lighting a slow fire, and setting the boat adrift.

Cremation dates to the Stone Age (three thousand BC). Homer (of Iliad and Odyssey fame) encouraged the practice for health reasons, and for soldiers killed in battle. Ancient Romans were finally forbidden to cremate within the city limits in the 5th century because the smoke was so thick on a daily basis. The practice originated using log pyres (stacks). Cremation has only recently gained widespread acceptance in our culture. Modern methods do not use flame, but intense heat (1600 degrees) to render the body into an ashen state.

Funerals are a form of Ancestor worship, and are solely for the well being of the survivors. The form and character of funerals are as diverse as the cultures and religions in the world. Think Irish Wake, New Orleans Jazz Funeral, and State funerals, to name a few. Today, the Green funeral concept is growing. Coffins are made of biodegradable cardboard, and buried where the box and its contents can go 'back to nature'.

The graveside custom of a volley from three rifles began during the Civil War. Originally, a volley was fired to cease fighting so the dead on the battlefield coud be cared for. The second volley meant the field was clear, and the fighting could resume. A 21 gun salute shows respect of one country to another, usually the weaker to the stronger. In Early America, one shot was fired for each state. Later it was standardized internationally at 21.

Taps is uniquely American. A Southern Civil War General who didn't like the bugle call for 'Lights Out' wrote it with the help of his bugler. Before long, even Yankee troops had adopted the beautiful, haunting melody. In later years it would be sung at evening campfires by Scout Troops, and played at civil and military memorials.

Americans find the topic of death distasteful, even rude. We have much to learn from history and our world neighbors.


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