Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sepulcher cult

Respect of the dead is one of the most ancient human principles that exists. In the splendid trilogy of films by Jacques Malaterre on the origins of humanity, there are reconstructions of the primeval impact of death at a personal level, that of the family and companions of the deceased. The notion of a sepulcher probably occurred in the beginning as a simple pile of rocks concealing the putrefying corpse. Much later, the concept of individual life after death was concocted, and the sepulcher cult reached an apogee in ancient Egypt. Along with the processes of embalming and mummification, and the erection of elaborate stone sepulchers, the Egyptians codified alleged happenings in their Underworld.

In this New Empire papyrus, the dog-headed god Anubis (whose head has often been described erroneously as that of a jackal) guides the deceased person to his judgment, which uses a balance.

Christians have taken over this Ancient Egyptian concept of a guide in their Saint Christopher, who is actually depicted in this image with a dog's head. Not so long ago, devout Catholic drivers used to attach a St Christopher medal above the dashboard of their vehicle, without realizing that the main role of the prototype personage consisted of guiding individuals into the afterlife! [What a pity that there don't seem to be any statistics revealing the proportion of accident deaths in which the driver was "protected" by a St Christopher medal.]

Getting back to the theme of elaborate sepulchers, I must admit, as a genealogy enthusiast, that I'm always happy to discover ancestral tombs, which are often a primary source of data. Sometimes, on the contrary, tombstones display less reliable information than what you can find in church and government records.

The raison d'être of my musings on sepulchers is to ask a rhetorical question: Should we, today, continue to employ traditional funerary rites that have come down to us from past epochs? Or should they be modernized? And the reason why this subject has arisen in my mind is the news item about a lot of folk having paid money to have a few grams of the ashes of some 200 loved ones sent into space aboard a telephone-sized rocket. The exact price: $495 dollars a gram. [Click here to see this story.] The capsule orbited Earth for two weeks, as planned, before floating back down to the surface of our planet by means of a parachute. But the hilarious aftermath of this afterlife business is that the parachute apparently touched down at a remote and rugged site in New Mexico, which means that the "ashstronauts" have not yet been found. Did the space vehicle and its dead occupants get damaged during their re-entry into the atmosphere? How long will they be able to survive in the harsh desert conditions if rescuers don't reach them soon? Will, in fact, they ever be found? These are terrible questions, which cannot yet be answered.

Personally, I'm convinced that it's high time to ditch all archaic concern for the material remains of the dead. We should realize that corpses are corpses, and ashes are ashes. No more, no less. I believe that much of the ugliness of death can be attenuated by facing up to the fact that a corpse contains no traces of the consciousness and personality of the individual we once knew. So, it's silly to think that the deceased person might, somehow or other, get a kick out of his/her posthumous ride through space.

I can imagine a far more logical spatial trip towards posterity, which could even be organized while the individual is still alive. This would consist simply of using modern technology to obtain a digital copy of his/her genome and then beaming this into outer space by means of a high-energy transmitter, which might be called a Life Ray (as opposed to the death rays of a Star Trek kind). To keep it company on its never-ending journey through space, the genome could be associated with a digitized account of the genealogy and earthly achievements of the deceased. And why not even encapsulate in the Life Ray's message a digitized illustration of Anubis or Saint Christopher? The more the merrier on this excursion throughout Eternity!

1 comment:

  1. It is more and more difficult to be a corps nowadays. You should read the article in Libération of May 17th, called "En Suède, des morts moins polluants"...