Sunday, May 28, 2006

Remembering the Dead

Memorial Day is a good time to study how different cultures and religions relate to death and remember their deceased. Only the Buddhists and others believing in reincarnation see it as a transition, otherwise death is often thought of as a crisis, and there is a sense of finality about it. However, since the days of the Neanderthal man humans have believed in afterlife. It was customary already then to give the dead supplies for the next phase in their journey. The great cultures of ancient China and Egypt buried their rulers with everything they could possibly need, including food, weapons, servants and even spouses.

Whereas it has been important to preserve a body in many parts of the world, whether in a form of a mummy inside a pyramid or just the common embalming in today’s America, others have desired to get rid of the remains as soon as possible, usually through cremation. In times of pandemics such as the plague or even the Spanish Flu, cremation has been acceptable to people whose belief system normally doesn’t allow for it, as even the primitive man knew that it helped to prevent the spread of the disease: a decomposing body in the ground can easily contaminate the water supply. In places like Tibet and Laos, cremation has traditionally reserved for special people, such as high-ranking lamas, or in case of Laos, for a person who died of natural causes after a long prosperous and peaceful life.

The Zoroastrians, or Parsis as they are called in India, came up with a different solution: as the dead body must not be in contact with earth, water or even fire, their deceased were placed on high towers for a sky burial, where birds of prey would soon strip off everything edible and leave nothing but bones behind. These were then thrown into a deep pit by their own ‘untouchables’, the only people allowed contact with the remains. Now comes the quiz of today: what does this all have to do with the arthritis drug Voltaren©, also known as diclofenac? During the last 10 years there has been a catastrophic 99% decrease in the number of vultures which normally do the mortician services in a Tower of Silence in Mumbai. The reason: sick cattle in India have been given this drug to help them stay in working shape. Once the animals die, the white-backed vultures dine on their carcasses as well, but cannot tolerate the drug present in the flesh and suffer fatal kidney failure. Probably many of the human bodies have high amounts of the drug as well, as we are what we eat, after all. This has become a real problem for the Parsis as now the bodies just rot. Elsewhere in the world this culture has had to come up with different solutions, such as cremating the dead in electric ovens where no actual fire is presents.

Where the Jews and Muslims want to bury their dead as soon as possible, the other extreme can be found in Indonesia on the island of Sulawesi among the Toraja people. There the time between a death and the funeral can be many years, to assure that everyone can attend and to save enough money to buy buffalo. These days the bodies are injected with formaldehyde and kept in a wooden coffin, right in the house, but in the past the body would rest in a special room on a mat; bamboo pipes under the floor would drain body fluids away.

In Greece people often bury their dead twice. Near Athens there is such shortage of land for burials that moving the remains later is almost a must to make space for others. But the people also feel that once the flesh has decayed, the bones should be placed elsewhere. We consume a lot of preservatives in our food and decomposition takes much longer these days, and supposedly it is not uncommon to have family members manually scraping remaining flesh off the bones, in preparation for the second burial.

Whatever method is used for the burial, most families want some kind of gravestone or marker for the remains, unless the urn is kept at home or the ashes have been spread. This will serve as a permanent reminder of the deceased for future generations. It can be fascinating and even important to wander through cemeteries looking for the graves of ancestors, beloved ones, and friends from the past, or to just see history unfold in front of one's eyes. Although not common in my home country, I like the Eastern European tradition of showing a picture of the person. It adds a personal image to just seeing the name, and makes the memory more real. I love to visit cemeteries if they are well taken care of and park-like. Whereas an endless graveyard with just stones in New York looks depressing to say the least, the one near our house in Seattle is serene, and my wife’s mother has a perfect place there and she would be proud of the location of her final home. But nothing beats the beauty of a Finnish cemetery on Christmas Eve, when every grave has a lit candle on it, protected by glass, turning the park into a sea of glittering lights, amplified by snow.

My heart goes out to all the families of soldiers who gave their lives for freedom and in defending their country, here and wherever they are. The sad, often unspoken truth is that not all of them died for an understandable or acceptable cause, but rather because of a political mistake, such as was the case in Vietnam. Time will tell how we will view our present crisis and the many fallen ones. - My mother lost five cousins who were fighting Stalin’s Red Army. How grief-stricken that family must have been, losing every son they had. But the only daughter took over and became the farmer, continuing the parents’ work. That is Finnish sisu for you: never give up.