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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Death becomes us

by Sarah Murray

The impulse to invest significance in the bodies of the dead has usually been a religious one. Yet even my atheist father cared about the treatment of his remains, says Sarah Murray

Clay figures mark the Day of the Dead in Mexico: during the annual holiday, people pray for and honour their deceased relatives and friends
“Listen, darling,” my mother told me in her no-nonsense voice. “I know how to do this—I’ve done it with soap powder.” Using a pair of kitchen scissors, she was snipping away at a thick plastic bag to allow its contents, tightly packed inside a steel pot, to flow out more freely. I’d suggested that if we made too large an opening in the bag, its contents would spill out in a rush. My mother, however, was in household-chore mode and was convinced her method would work. She was right, and suddenly our task became much easier. But before we could continue, we found ourselves on the floor, weeping with laughter at the absurdity of what she had just said. For the dust we were decanting wasn’t soap powder. It was once a living, breathing human being: my father.
It was the day my mother and I had picked to scatter his ashes. We’d embarked on the rather curious task of getting them into a bag as soon as we had taken off the lid of the urn and realised they would be impossible to release from within the plastic container the funeral home had stuffed inside it. This procedure was probably not something my father had anticipated. But for everything else, he’d left instructions.

In a letter, he had asked that we scatter his remains around a church in a beautiful Dorset village near our family home and near where two of his closest friends were buried—not an unusual request, you might think. Except that he was a lifelong atheist and had always insisted that the “organic matter” left after a person takes their last breath (his included) had no significance whatsoever. That person had gone.

Looking down at his ashes, I wondered if he was right. How much of him was in that bag? What exactly are we, after our heart stops beating—person, or object?

Buddha Statue, Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kand...
Buddha Statue, Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As visitors lined up this summer to see the medieval casketed relics of saints at the British Museum’s “Treasures of Heaven” exhibition, I was reminded that our intense relationship with human remains is a longstanding one. For the faithful, the “organic matter” of saints is potent stuff. Wander through Europe’s ancient churches and cathedrals and, on an altar or in a side chapel, you find gilded caskets, elaborately decorated and with glass sides permitting a glimpse of what lies within. That’s often something decidedly grim: an elbow splinter, a blackened fingerbone or, if you’re lucky, a whole skull. They aren’t much to look at. But since the dawn of Christendom, fragments of dead martyrs and saints have been venerated as holy objects.
Europeans aren’t alone in their fondness for sacred remains. A Muslim pilgrimage shrine in Srinagar, India, houses a whisker—displayed on important religious days—believed to have come from the beard of the Prophet. In Sri Lanka, the town of Kandy is home to the Buddha’s tooth. In an inner chamber of the Dalada Maligawa (temple of the tooth), it sits in a glass case surrounded by gold and silk decorations and is put on display every five years (when I saw it some time ago, I thought it looked surprisingly large and rather yellow).
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Death becomes us
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