Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Rituals pt1

Kensal Green

I’ve sat down several times over the last few days with the intention of writing a blog posting.

Every time I tried I ended up surfing Flickr or engaging in some other displacement activity instead. The problem is that my thoughts are stuck on the cremation I attended last week and I’m reluctant, uncharacteristically, to write down anything that might appear disrespectful or in some way tasteless.

Disrespect is the furthest thing from my mind

I’ve never attended a cremation before. Absolutely all of my dead relatives are interned somewhere. There’s a vault in Italy where I can visit three generations of my Mum’s family, all stacked neatly one above the other in a wall. And, in case anyone has trouble remembering what they looked like, there are pictures as well. The wall filled up in the days when the village was remote, people didn’t travel much and everyone was related to each other in about five or six different ways. Times change though, the family is scattered, they marry each other less and I guess my Mum’s will be the last generation to be slotted into that wall; physically intact and near to family

There’s also the wee small matter that it’s now almost full and none of us have the heart to turf out my great uncle and his wife, even though they’re squatting. But that’s another story.

Anyway, I’m accustomed to watching dead people I know being buried as intact as the circumstances of their demise allow. To the uninitiated, the concept of slotting family members; parents and children, brothers and sisters, into a photo-indexed, concrete filing cabinet may seem bizarre but that’s what I’m used to.

And that’s why I shuddered, even more than usual in the circumstances, last week when the curtain was drawn around the coffin and the cremation began.

I prefer the old-fashioned Italian way. It seems more organic, less industrial.

I know I’m being illogical. There will come a time, when no one is left to care for them, when all the remains in the family vault will be cleared out and tossed into an ossary somewhere. Nothing in life, or death, is permanent. Not even a grave.

A close friend of my parents died just before Christmas and is buried in his family plot in Italy. Just before the coffin was cemented in, a couple of holes were drilled into the coffin's seal at the request of the cemetery caretaker. The cemetery is dangerously close to having to set-up a waiting list and they’re thinking about clearing occupants out after less than 20 years now. That went down a storm with the widow.

‘Here lies Joe Soap. Resting in peace until Judgement Day or when we need the space. Whichever comes sooner’.

So, yes, I’ll be the first to admit that my antipathy towards cremation is illogical. It’s just one of those cultural things. Whether we believe the literal word of the Bible or not many of us, the Christians anyway, have been bathed in a culture that historically supported the notion of bodily resurrection.

Like how is that going to work anyway? Does that mean, in the long run, that it’s better to die young and fit than old and frail? Are we really to be bound by our physical limitations in the afterlife? Do tattoos last for eternity? Do they have lavatories in Heaven?

Sorry, I really don’t think so. Whether you’re a believer or a disbeliever, a body is no more than a machine. A dead body is broken machine. Broken beyond all hope of repair. Broken machines are discarded.

A group of people was waiting outside as we filed out of the chapel. They were Indian and next in line. Behind us, attendants were wheeling the chapel's mobile crucifix out of sight and taking Fields of Gold off the tape machine. I guess they must have some sitar music in their collection somewhere.

The men in Indian burial party contrasted very strongly with our group. We were all dressed in dark suits. They were decked out in brown nylon slacks and tatty polo shirts.

They also seemed slightly more casual about the whole thing. Not disrespectful, just less obviously upset. I could be way out of line here but I got the distinct impression that their attitude was more along the lines of ‘It’s only meat. Let’s burn the body then back home for bhajis’.

As I said, not disrespectful, just more pragmatic.


Noel said...

I had never given the cremation burial thing much thought. Why should I'm 37. But with Phils cremation I have, and I'm firmly for 'bury me'. It seems that now there is nothing left of Phil, only ash. Its like she has not only died but she has been completely physically erased from the world. No body, no bones, no DNA. Ash. This is difficult for me to reconcile with the last photo I have of her taken in December, smiling, slightly pink from day spent in the summer sun, looking as healthy as any of the four others at the resturant table.

If someone deserved to be obliterated from this earth (eg Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin etc.) I could think of no better way than cremation. For me I now know I want something of me left. Even if its just bones in the ground.

Stef said...

I know what you mean

Imagine what was going through Tracy's mind, or Phil's parents come to that.

I once mentioned to a priest that I would prefer a tree to a headstone. I liked the idea of nourishing its roots. I like trees a lot. The priest diplomatically told me that I was being a tad pagan. I still like the idea though ...