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). 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 fourteen 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?
[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nabokov at English Wikipedia, CoffinShopWarsaw, CC BY 3.0]
Lest you think that this is just some sort of weird sales gimmick, an aberration, recently 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 Bertha 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, and then have a blowout party on the beach afterwards, complete with drinking, dancing, and debauchery. Sending a burning boat out into the ocean is probably all kinds of illegal, much less one with a corpse on it, 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 in any case, I am quite sure that I won't need a reading light or surround-sound.
This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a little on the dark side.
The Radium Girls, by Kate Moore, tells the story of how the element radium -- discovered in 1898 by Pierre and Marie Curie -- went from being the early 20th century's miracle cure, put in everything from jockstraps to toothpaste, to being recognized as a deadly poison and carcinogen. At first, it was innocent enough, if scarily unscientific. The stuff gives off a beautiful greenish glow in the dark; how could that be dangerous? But then the girls who worked in the factories of Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, which processed most of the radium-laced paints and dyes that were used not only in the crazy commodities I mentioned but in glow-in-the-dark clock and watch dials, started falling ill. Their hair fell out, their bones ached... and they died.
But capitalism being what it is, the owners of the company couldn't, or wouldn't, consider the possibility that their precious element was what was causing the problem. It didn't help that the girls themselves were mostly poor, not to mention the fact that back then, women's voices were routinely ignored in just about every realm. Eventually it was stopped, and radium only processed by people using significant protective equipment, but only after the deaths of hundreds of young women.
The story is fascinating and horrifying. Moore's prose is captivating -- and if you don't feel enraged while you're reading it, you have a heart of stone.
[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]
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