Thursday, January 31, 2013
Laying to rest
The laying out of the dead happens in many religions. A final procession of the bereaved to gaze upon the face of the dearly departed seems inextricably bound up with primeval feelings. It is the equivalent of putting your fingers in the nail holes of Christ. It is a public affirmation before witnesses that this person is no more amongst us. For some it is also a last glimpse of the wholeness of the individual. In the Azimuth Trilogy there are many encounters with death and the handling of it among different peoples and sects. The most ghastly punishment to be inflicted upon the bereaved is to cut up the body and distribute it where it cannot be found and made complete. I have long held the theory that the dismemberment of corpses by psychopaths harks back to such primitive rituals.
Someone close to me has just died. In Ghana this means the preparation of the body for the (in this case) church and the last viewing where the congregation queue to pay their final respects (sometimes as indicated in an earlier blog, up to a year after the formal pronouncement of death, the body being kept nearly frozen – not actually frozen as ice crystals form and disfigure). Preparation involves making the person as near to the original as the cadavar will allow. There is much veiled criticism if this is not done with sensitivity. The shroud (ie the clothes to be worn in the coffin) must represent the style and character of the deceased (a bohemian cannot be buried in dodgy stodgy old people’s dress). They must be white for the marriage to God (or death as I, as a non-Christian, see it). They must be specially made to be worn the once. The hair must be brushed at the very last to be as naturally consonant with images people have of that individual, the face must be made up with the cosmetics she used, there should be white socks and often there must be extra undergarments so that the slow decay into fleshless bone which often happens with the elderly, is disguised. In other words, the final picture should be of rude health, a person somewhat younger than in this final reckoning.
The Egyptians were rather good at all this but the superstitions and taboos linger today. The send-off on the last great journey requires many protocols, even, as in Ghana, where there is suspended ‘inanimation’ before the final goodbyes.