Things to Do in Dixie When You're Dead

A Cultural Anthropology Term Paper

17And unto Adam He said: . .
. . 19In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,
till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken;
for dust thou art; and unto dust shalt thou return.’
Genesis 3:17 & 3:19

Death, whether it is seen as a celestial dragon etching firey souls onto the bank of the heavens, a portentous grinning skull with hourglass in hand and scythe under the arm, a radiant angel bearing the deceased up to the heavens, or even more recently a winsome smile and sweet eyes, is feared, sung of, revered, and respected in virtually every culture across the globe. It was in an effort to make death less frightening that humanity began enacting various rituals of respecting and honouring the dead, leaving something permanent behind, even if it was only the formula of the rite, after the life was fled.

Humanity has developed countless variations on the simple medical need to rid themselves of the decaying flesh left behind once life has fled. Without some means of properly disposing of the body, it will eventually begin to draw insects, wild beasts, and pestilence to itself, placing those still living in some amount of danger. It is out of respect for the dead one’s memory that a special degree of care is taken with the empty shell that is left behind, rather than disposing of it like refuse or waste.

In some cultures, the body is cooked and eaten, both as an act of love for the deceased and to absorb any attributes that the organs might hold, such as wisdom in the brain, courage from the heart and viscera, strength from the muscles, and so forth. In others, the body is disposed of through fire, often seen as a cleansing element, burning away the impurities. The body is clothed, placed on a pyre, or ship, sometimes surrounded by objects precious to the deceased, and set alight. There are different procedures that can be adopted to dispose of the resultant ashes. Mummification is quite famous, dating from the time of the pyramids, using salt, mineral baths, and dehydration to preserve the corpse, which is then interred in some form or fashion, not necessarily in the grandiose methods employed by the ancient Egyptians. Mummification is an example of a spontaneous act of Nature that was replicated by and expounded upon by human beings. Disposal through water is also common in a variety of cultures, usually those with flowing water supplies, as poisoning one’s own finite resources of drinking water is rather an act that can only be measured in Darwinian terms. The cultures that practiced this method of bodily disposal have almost universally been wiped out from the resultant diseases. Variants of this practice include feeding to water animals or fish, weighting the body to sink, and using a ship to send the body away. Air burial, though the very name itself exists as a contradiction of terms, usually is carried out by dismembering the corpse of the deceased, rendering it down to the smallest parts, and feeding it to the raptors or other scavengers.

Each method of disposal has dozens of possible variations on the theme, and is commonly practiced according to the culture’s beliefs and the deceased’s social standing, the geographical location and hence, availability of certain methods of disposal, and the cause of death. For instance, in northern Mongolia, in the region of Ulaanbaatar, where nobles are buried in ornate cemeteries, and the bodies of children under a certain age, being still ‘pure’, were also interred. People who had died of an infectious illness were cremated, and those who did not fit into any of these categories were given a variant of the water burial in a nearby swiftly flowing river. Those who had been executed for some grievous crime were given an open-air disposal on the nearby steppes, where their body was left, with great ceremony and pomp, for any and all scavengers.

In the United States, burial is still the most common method of disposing the dead. Although cremation is rapidly gaining popularity simply for its convenience, for quite the longest time, religion dictated the method of disposing the body. The Bible’s Book of Revelations decrees that when the apocryphal Day of Judgement arrives, the souls of the departed will be rejoined with their bodies to much trumpet fanfare. Having one’s body exist as nothing more than a pile of ash at that day and time would prove to be more than a trifle inconvenient or embarrassing, when faced with the Almighty. Thus cremation did not gain any real popularity until this century, when technological advances made the procedure more precise and less messy, and when space constraints truly began to exert pressure on graveyards, combined with, for the first time, the availability of existential philosophy to the masses somewhat lifting the pressure to ascribe truth to old Biblical legends. The most prominent instance one can look at is when, in 1963, the Pope’s Holy Vatican lifted the canonical prohibition against cremation, and the revision became text in 1983, as it was incorporated into a reprinting of the church’s canon. Even more recently, the bishops of the United States and the Holy See have written and incorporated “a celebration of the Catholic funerary liturgy with the cremated remains when the body is cremated before the funeral”. (Bradly Funeral Home, 2003)

In the Southeast United States, where the letter of the Bible is still taken very seriously, cremation is not quite so common as elsewhere. Graveyards are common, as the more rural south still has the land to accommodate space for the dead as well as the living. Given that the South has not historically bourn the heavy burden of major population centers, the cholera, smallpox, and influenza epidemics never took full force out on the cities of Dixie, and graveyards were never so fully packed as in the North. The word ‘cemetery’ itself is derived from the Greek word for ‘sleeping chamber’, and it is little wonder that association was made. Ornate headstones are commissioned, as well as memorial markers, crypts, mausoleums, and sarcophagi, and their production is something most stone masons learn and practice their craft on, often displaying their wares outside the production facilities, on main thoroughfares. Cemeteries can be found almost everywhere, at the sides of interstates, beside and around churches, in the middle of cities and towns, out in the countryside, even in the middle of commercial and industrial parks. The bones of the dead lay everywhere around and underneath the feet of the living, even unmarked, as countless battles over the history of the country have been fought on this soil, and the bodies of fallen soldiers covered where they lay, and forgotten. Even more macabre, when modern highways and businesses wish to build on land already occupied by the dead, rather than bothering to move each individual corpse, they simple bulldoze and build over the top ( this scenario, although the topic of a popular movie of the 1970s, has at least some basis in fact, as archeological digs constantly find the remains of past inhabitants underneath current facilities).

Interment in the South is largely traditional. The deceased is placed in a coffin, a wooden box at least moderately tailored to their physical size. The funerary industry has come a long way since the rough pine boxes of pioneer times, and today coffins are hugely expensive models of sleek polyurethane, gleaming chrome, or brightly polished hardwood, lead-lined to keep out the insects and water (and yet somehow never manage to ward off decay). They resemble torpedoes or ship’s berths or even cars more than they do their predecessors.

The coffin is then buried at a depth of no less than six feet under the surface of the earth. This custom “probably began as an effort to bury several clients on one site” (Briggs, “Six Feet Under”), as was the tradition and practice in Britain and most of Europe until the early Victorian times, reusing the same site over and over again. This inevitably led to disturbed graves of previous interments, to the point that identifying any singular body out of the resultant rabble was more of an act of jigsawing the puzzle together. The practice of “recycling” plots was outlawed, but the tradition remained, and so the graves are dug deep. This remains one of the least grisly of several theories, others being that the extremely deep grave depth was developed to keep the smell of decomposing flesh from being quite so apparent in cemeteries where the living frequently visit; or that this is one of the least extreme methods taken to prevent the dead from crawling out of their graves.

The graves of good Christian folk are traditionally dug with their feet pointing toward the East, and their heads at the West, in order to facilitate the ease of rising on the Day of Judgement, as that is where the trumpet calls to the dead will come from. Thus, when they rise, they will already be facing the rising sun and the choirs and leagues of angels expected. The graves of atheists, criminals, and other wrongdoers are usually dug North to South, illustrating that these people have turned their backs on God.

The most visible aspect of a graveyard is the headstone. Typically a stone marker positioned at the head of the grave, it usually bears ( if known) the name of the deceased, the dates of the birth and death, and a fitting passage of Scripture, poetry, or other message etched into the stone. The symbology of a grave marker is actually an incredibly in-depth, precise lexicon, with a number of images that on first glance bear no importance or significance, but upon further scrutiny and comparison can reveal a wealth of information about the person buried below, or at least about the views held by those burying him or her. Anything from A (an anchor, to denote a sailor or someone connected to the sea, or simply someone seen as an anchoring influence within their community; an angel, meant to be representative of the person’s virtues or bearing their soul up to heaven) to almost Z (winged skulls, showing the soul on its journey through the afterlife, and winged suns, a sign used throughout the Masonic community) can be etched and sculpted on a gravestone. Celtic crosses, cherubs, guarding watchdogs or lions, lamps used to illuminate the spirit. Even nudes, meant to illustrate the human soul, laid bare of its earthly pretensions.

Which is not to mention obelisks, statues, urns and sarcophagi, and the sundry other above-ground methods of interment first invented in soggy climates where the ground was simply too soft to allow for a decent Christian interment. These sedate stone structures house the dead at eye level or higher, and viewed from above, can truly make a cemetery resemble a ‘city of the dead’.

Various rites and rituals are used to bury the dead in the Southeastern US. Mostly dependent on the deceased’s religion or the views of those burying them, the rite typically consists of a religious observance (typically a church service), mourners following a proscribed mode of dress (all black), as well as a specified mode of behaviour that outlines acceptable parameters of grief and how that grieving can be expressed. Trappings of the service include the aforementioned coffin, flowers, and sometimes objects that remind those left behind of the deceased. A typical southern burial will be thereafter followed by a wake, a gathering at the home of the deceased or his loved one’s with food being brought to the house and left (the assumption being that the members of the family should be too aggrieved to cook, and so the burden of doing so should be lifted from them), and people offering words of comfort or solace to the principle mourners (usually the immediate family, the spouse, or those closest to the deceased). The choice of word itself, wake, is curious, as it is a word that can have many meanings, such as ‘waking’ from sleep, or the ‘wake’ of something’s passing, the ripples and aftereffects felt by those behind. The strictest of cultural taboos for appropriate behaviour in the graveyard, at the funeral, and in interacting with the family of the deceased are in effect, and very rarely broken, for fear of causing pain to the mourners, or angering God or the deceased.

>funeral rites
>cemetery symbolism
>James Briggs, pathologist, posting

Searl, Edward. 2000. In memoriam: a guide to modern funeral and memoriam services.

Crissman, James K. 1943. Death and dying in central Appalachia.

Brendann, Essie. 1994. Death Customs: An analytical study of burial rites.

Gaiman, Neil. 1989-1996. The Sandman.

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