Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Where Are Your Dead People?

Gravestone Detail, New Braunfels, Texas
The Book of the Dead really gives us an opportunity to think about...well, death and dead guys.  It's one thing to contemplate your own death and where you think that leaves you (or takes you); it's another to address the question of the "sociology of death."  That means asking questions like: What place do the dead have in our society? What do we owe them? What can they do for us?

Etruscan Funerary Monument, 6th Century BCE
In the ancient world, the dead remained a cause of concern in many ways. They had to be tended and cared for, given offerings, appealed to and sometimes appeased. Most ancient societies had very particular beliefs, taboos, and practices concerning the handling of the dead: what to do with the body, how to prepare it, where to put it. It is a hallmark of "modernity" in Western societies that we try very hard not to think about this—at all.  The body is handled by professionals almost from the moment someone dies all the way to the grave. Many of us have never seen a dead body that has not been made up for a funeral viewing (and yes, there is a BIG difference). It is almost as if death has become unnatural to us!

So start thinking about this now: where are your dead people? Who are they? Do you know where your ancestors are buried? Have you actually been to their graves? Where will you, your parents, your siblings be buried? What will happen to your body when you die? Do you have a choice? Should you have a choice?

I strongly encourage you sometime this semester to go to a cemetery or two in Houston or around Texas.  Just walk around and see what you can discover about our society based on where we put and how we treat our dead.  See in what language the gravestones are engraved; see how the dead present themselves or are presented by the inscriptions. (There is an old joke about a gravestone in Brooklyn that says: "What are you lookin' at?")  How is the cemetery organized? You will find cemeteries segregated along various lines (religious denomination, economic class, race, membership in unions or other organizations) throughout Texas.

Grave in New Braunfels, Texas

Gravestones and funerary monuments represent some of the oldest surviving forms of writing.  What would you like your grave to communicate to people two millennia from now?
—Richard Armstrong
Grave of Johannes Brahms in Vienna


  1. UH Professor Marie Theresa Hernandez has a wonderful book on the San Isidro cemetery in Sugarland, entitled "Cemeteries of Ambivalent Desire." I used it in my Artists and Their Regions class this spring, where we visited the dead from Houston to New Orleans.

  2. It's quite interesting when you take all the questions and apply them to Hindu's. Hindu's (please correct me if I'm wrong!) cremate the corpses of the dead because they believe it is essential and required in the process of reincarnation. They then scatter the ashes in the Ganges River, which they consider sacred.

  3. I recommend in Houston,

    In Buffalo we have a great Victorian cemetary, Forest Lawn,

    We used to take the kids there to feed the ducks.

    In Rochester, where I grew up, Mount Hope cemetary is a wonderful Victorian cemetary,

    I've visited many cemetaries in my travels. Pere Lachaise in Paris, Highgagte cemetary in London, the cemetaries at the Normandy D-Day beaches, and countless others in Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe.

    The actual Victorians would picnic in Highgate cemetary.


  4. Over the course of my 18 year life, I have only been to four funerals--one of a former early childhood pastor, whom I did not know well, one of my half-brother's grandfather, also unknown to me, one of my great grandfather, and one of a ten year old child I babysat. Old age, cancer, old age, and a virus.

    The first death did not affect me at all. Being six years old and not knowing the man, or at least not remembering him, my reason for attending his funeral was "my parents made me."

    The second death of my brother's grandfather affected me, not as one in mourning, but as a young child (age 10 or so) seeing her tough, strong older brother cry and be comforted. I attended his funeral out of respect for my brother.

    The third funeral was my great grandfather's, whom I love, but never had a strong relationship with. His death was like unto my brother's grandfather's, yet I now had true grief of my own.

    The fourth death... deeply affected me... the death of not only a child, but a child I often babysat. She was 10 years old. I was 15. Our small town with a population of not even 2000 people responded with love and support and sympathy. The schools shut down for her funeral and dedicated a special park to her. No one, of those who knew her, who went to school with her, who attended her funeral, who played with her on the playground, who considered her a friend, or even a mere acquaintance, will ever forget the tragedy of Mariah's death.

    Already, as new maintenance crews and new budget cuts have taken over the schools and school parks, Mariah's dedicated park has grown up weeds, withering trees, and other signs of "less care." Already, her name is less spoken of by her friends, by her family, as everyone takes on the busyness of their daily lives; (this is not to say she has not been thought of). Already... Mariah is fading into memory.

    Is that wrong? Should they (we) be condemned for our seemingly detachment from the dead? Has death become unnatural to us?

    No. This is the cycle of life. There is life... and then there is death. Looking back on Mariah's death, though presently misunderstood of its purpose, is not without its lessons to those of us who still remain-- including to the doctor who said, "Don't worry. It's just a virus." Because of Mariah and her death, I have seen how fragile and limited life is. I have experienced the growth and maturity that comes from seeing innocence die.

    This step of "evaluating" our life and the life of the one who has left us and especially, the step of grieving and then acceptance, is NOT unnatural; unfortunately, these steps are often forgotten in our cycle of life and death. To not evaluate our lives, to not grieve, to not accept the death and to move on, is disrupting nature.

    We are not forgetting or disrespecting "our dead people," whether they be family, friends, or otherwise. We are, in fact, allowing life to continue, allowing nature to follow its course, and, ultimately, allowing our dead to rest.

    **I know this comment is not a short answer... and I also know that this comment does not address a specific question. Instead, I am responding to the second paragraph, (in a round about sort of way)..... Just in case someone was wondering. :D

  5. For Catholics, there are many ideas and set truths, so to speak, around death. We plan and prepare for the physical death and hope to attain heaven. Like the Egyptians with the Ba and Ka spirit, we also believe that a person has separate entities. That one can be physically alive but spiritually dead. So maybe the dead are among us? Haha. To be considered spiritually living by Catholic standards, you must have the life of God within you—this is called sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is bestowed upon us at baptism and can be lost by committing a mortal sin-causing death to the soul. Life/sanctifying grace can be restored by the sacrament of confession with a Catholic priest. Physical death in the state of sanctifying grace allows you to enter heaven. Physical death with a dead soul-that is without sanctifying grace, will land you in hell-God have mercy on us.

    I almost feel as though the ideas I present now are foreign to many people. Dr. Armstrong makes a very apt statement when he says that we don’t know death anymore. With the avoidance of certain topics and words and ideas so characteristic of our time, even modern Catholics are no longer taught about death in full. (Don’t be afraid to call Egyptians weird. They are weird because their beliefs are characteristic to them. This makes them interesting and worth studying.)

    Traditional Catholics aren’t normally afraid to talk about death or demons. In the past I hid my beliefs because I knew people would think our state in this modern world to be ritualistic and therefore out dated. Far from it. A good scientist should not deny that God may exist. A good religious person should not deny that science may prove many truths. Pope Benedict XVI says something like this.

    To remember our dead, in mass we often pray for those in purgatory because they may have been forgotten. Personally though… my ancestors’ whereabouts are unknown. My ancestors and family are from a strange variety of religions separate but combined into a confusing noncohesive way of life. They are in heaven, purgatory or hell. God knows…..

  6. In the average American home, wealth and work are what define us. We don't put much thought on dead persons, aside from perhaps special occasions.

    I have had the unfortunate chance to have been the only one around when my grandfather died, something I will never erase from my memory. I was only four but it had a great impact on my life. Even at four, lacking any concept of death, I knew something was wrong. Despite that, I haven't visited my grandfather's grave since that week after his funeral.

    We don't talk about death in American homes and my family certainly doesn't talk about my grandfathers death. It hurts the first Christmas, birthday, or New Year after losing someone but the pain quickly fades and we forget that person all together. We forget the sound of their voice or their touch. Rather than the cycles that Egyptians looked to, we look to new things. We want to change things, make them different, improve upon them. In the case of the dead, we look past them quickly and move on with our lives.

  7. In the religion of Islam, the burying of the dead is very particular. Traditionally, family members of the deceased perform the ritual of wu'du (the ablution ritual performed prior to prayers) and then wrap the body in a simple, white blanket. The body is then placed in a coffin where it may be taken to a Mosque. Mosque-goers, after prayers, carry the coffin outside and to the cemetery. The body is placed into its final resting place, until God decides to resurrect us to be judged.

    All the graves I have seen of deceased Muslims have a simple headstone with the name of the deceased and an inscription of an Islamic prayer. In the Qu'ran, the bodies should not even have a headstone. It should be so that their location underground remains anonymous. I guess this is to retaliate against the idea of "worshiping" the dead in any form.

    I find it interesting that the dead should almost nearly be forgotten physically. It is true in Islam that the physical world is simply a test that has no worth once we all pass through to the afterlife. Of course we pray for the dead, yet we do not pray for their bodies, thus I supposed finding the grave of a loved one is irrelevant due to the fact that it is the soul that is judged by God.