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247. Darkening of the light (III)

We have a problem with death; namely, we have managed to extirpate death from our entire lives—even from our funerals. The standard sentiment, especially among Boomers, although it goes back at least to their parents, is that a funeral should be a celebration, not a lament. The extreme manifestations in this regard come in the form of those people who play practical jokes at funerals; perhaps they arrange to have a voice recording of themselves emanate from the coffin—at the lesser extreme, people arrange for their favourite pop or rock music to be played as they slide into the furnace at the crematorium.

Humans began to bury their dead about 8,000-10,000 years ago; now, human history is much longer than that, and I would not be surprised—given the length of the custom—if the tradition goes back even further; perhaps it started when a body was covered with fir branches and a few flowers, objects that would leave no archeological records. So it is significant that I see among the Boomers—among their parents, too—a tendency to forego gravestones; for some people there is a straight transition to ashes and then on to the sea or a mountain. The impermanence is linked to a vague pantheistic sentiment that we all go back to nature; though the idea is purely materialist—and so sometimes it is linked to environmental ideas; possibly certain funeral rites are more carbon intensive than others.

In many cities there are large cemeteries called necropolises; and this literally means “cities of the dead”. The idea is that the dead are very much with us still; they lead a different life now, they have a different city—yet the city is there. These cemeteries are often particularly ornate, complete with crypts for entire families; the Victorians were especially keen on elaborate funeral customs, possibly because they were the last British generation with a residual religious sensibility; after Victoria died, we entered the world of pure utility and nihilism: we closed the cities of death because the dead were no longer alive to us.

Death is hidden in contemporary Western societies; the cheerful funeral is designed to conceal even the event; we are not really sorry, because it did not really happen. For myself, I would prefer fifty attractive women—paid professional mourners if necessary, though these tend to be old crones—to rend their clothes as they follow my cortège; perhaps one could throw herself into my grave, overcome with grief; her mascara run to panda eyes in sadness.

It is a strange situation, at the moment people lost all belief in an afterlife they also stopped all ostentatious mourning. The wags used to say, “If you think there’s a God, why do cry at a funeral? He’s in Heaven, isn’t he?” Yet, strangely, without a minimum conception of the afterlife, mourning becomes impossible: death is too great a shadow to deal with, so better to pretend a funeral is a happy event instead. We live in a curated environment where the only question is how to minimise pain and maximise lies.

The idea that a person should live with death before them at all times is mystical; and the results can vary: if each moment is treated as your last, then perhaps you will become a very compassionate person—if you could be separated from the world in the next instant, why would you be cruel to others? Alternatively, the death-conscious person might tell the truth in a relentless manner: people often say that they save the truth for publication after their death, but if death is possible in the next moment then there is no need to hold back—tell the stark truth now, to orientate yourself towards death is an aid to courage. Few live this way, few really put death before them at each moment of the day; quite the contrary, death is pushed away with distraction—we do not want to fall into the mystery.

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