Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Memento mori

People have really weird attitudes toward death.

Note that I am not just referring to religious concepts of the afterlife, here, although as an atheist I am bound to think that some of those sound pretty bizarre, too.  I've heard everything from your traditional harps-and-haloes idea, to being more or less melted down and fused with god, to fields of flowers and babbling brooks, to spending all of eternity with your dead relatives (and it may sound petty of me, but considering a few of my relatives, this last one sounds more like a version of hell to me).  Then, of course, you have the much-discussed Islamic 72-virgins concept of heaven, which brings up the inevitable question of what the virgins' opinions about all of this might be.  All of these strike me as equal parts absurdity and wishful thinking, given that (honestly) believers have come to these conclusions based on exactly zero evidence.

But today, I'm more considering the rituals and traditions surrounding death itself, aside from all of the ponderings of what (if anything) might happen to us afterwards.  I was first struck by how oddly death is handled, even here in relatively secular America, when my mom died seven years ago.  My wife and I were doing the wrenching, painful, but necessary choosing of a coffin, and we were told by the salesman that there was a model that had a little drawer inside in which "photographs, letters, and other mementos can be placed."  There was, we were told, a battery-powered light inside the drawer, presumably because it's dark down there in the ground.

Carol and I looked at each other, and despite the circumstances, we both laughed.  Did this guy really think that my mom was going to be down there in the cemetery, and would periodically get bored and need some reading material?

Lest you think that this is just some sort of weird sales gimmick, an aberration, just yesterday I ran into an article that describes an invention by Swedish music and video equipment salesman Fredrik Hjelmquist.  Hjelmquist has one-upped the coffin with the bookshelf and reading light; his coffins have surround-sound, and the music storage device inside the coffin can be updated to "provide solace for grieving friends and relatives by making it possible for them to alter the deceased's playlist online."

The whole thing comes with a price tag of 199,000 kroner (US$30,700), which you would think would put it out of the price range of nearly everyone -- but there have been thousands of inquiries, mostly from the United States and Canada, but also from as far away as China and Taiwan.

Now, I understand that many of the rituals surrounding death are for the comfort of the living; the flowers, the wakes, the songs at funerals, and so on.  But this one is a little hard to explain based solely on that, I think.  Is there really anyone out there who would be comforted by the fact that Grandma is down there in Shady Grove Memorial Park, rockin' out to Metallica?  I would think that if you would go for something like this, especially considering the cost, you would have to believe on some level that the Dearly Departed really is listening.  Which, to me, is kind of creepy, because it implies that the person you just buried is somehow still down there.  Conscious and aware.  In that cold, dark box underground.

To me, this is the opposite of comforting.  This is Poe's "The Premature Burial."

The whole thing brings to mind the Egyptians' practice of placing food, gifts, mummified pets, and so on in the tombs of departed rich people, so they'll have what they need on their trip into the afterlife.  But unlike the Egyptians, who had a whole intricate mythology built up around death, we just have bits and pieces, no coherent whole that would make sense of it.  (And again, that's with the exception of religious explanations of the afterlife.)  As a culture, we're distinctly uneasy about the idea of dying, but we can't quite bring ourselves to jump to the conclusion, "he's just gone, and we don't understand it."

I was always struck by the Klingons' approach to death in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  As a comrade-in-arms is dying, you howl, signifying that the folks in the afterlife better watch out, because a seriously badass warrior is on the way.  But afterwards -- do what you want with the body, because the person who inhabited it is gone.  "It is just a dead shell," they say.  "Dispose of it as you see fit."

Me, I like the Viking approach.  When I die, I'd appreciate it if my family and friends would stick me on a raft, set it on fire, and launch it out into the ocean.  That's probably all kinds of illegal, but it seems like a fitting farewell, given that I've always thought that Thor and Odin and Loki and the rest of the gang were a great deal more appealing than any other religion I've ever run across.  But if that turns out to be impractical, just "dispose of me as you see fit."  And fer cryin' in the sink, I am quite sure that I won't need a reading light or surround-sound.


  1. My favorite option among today's choices is promession. Of course, I think this is only a choice is Sweden, and possibly S. Korea, so if I feel the end is near I'll need to book travel quickly. Or, find someone with a good bit of liquid nitrogen and no plans for the weekend.

    If you're not familiar with the practice, the body is first frozen and then shattered using ultrasound. The resulting biomass is then screened, and/or passed through a strong magnetic field, to remove fillings and any other foreign materials.

    I think most of the time, the promains are then used in the planting of a tree or such in a memorial garden, though since they're water-safe, they could also work for burial at sea. Sort of like flaked fish-food.

  2. When I die, I hope my friends will marinate me and feast ont he remains. I have no preference as to condiments.

  3. I've always been somewhat mystified by people's response to death and dying.

    I guess if you're playing music for Grandma in the cemetery or something, it must be some kind of inability to believe that they're really gone...although, as you say, that's a pretty horrifying idea.

    My preference, which I've shared with my friends and family (and I currently have the paperwork on my kitchen table waiting to be filled out) is to donate my body to the Body Farm, so I can be tossed out in a field (or bog, pond, whatever), left to decompose naturally, and studied for forensic science. My skeleton will then eventually end up in the museum at the university that runs the Body Farm.