Funerals are irrational
(or: How to lose all of your friends by being brutally honest)
There is a very good chance that I am about to piss you off to a degree which you have not experienced or even imagined. I apologize, dear reader. However, it must still be written in my opinion.
I wish to submit for examination the irrational precept of funerals or other rituals of death.
I will first examine the concept of a funeral or death ritual in terms that I believe are intersubjectively true. A funeral is a posthumous gathering of one's still-living friends and relatives for the purpose of honoring your life, allocating time for mourning your loss, and/or following cultural tradition. The most often heard answer to: "What is a funeral?" is that one's friends and relatives need the solace of saying "goodbye" to your now rotting corpse. At some point in our evolutionary development, human kindred or kine discovered that declaring their sadness over the death of a family member or close friend made them feel more comfortable with the loss of the individual. We have them to thank for this garish tradition.
There is no question in my mind that funerals began shortly after complex thoughts arose in the minds of early humanity. Often the more gruesome the form of death the more elegant the ceremony honoring the dead person became. More often than even that, the particulars of the dead individual exponentially increased the amount of grief shown at a funeral ceremony. Children, leaders, and the well loved garner the most attention to their proverbial departure rituals. Ask an elder where they were when Kennedy was shot, or when Elvis' death was announced. Ask me where I was when Princess Diana's limo hit and crumpled. Ask any of us where we were when people were dying at 'Ground Zero' in 2001. Certainly, in those instances we can examine our own feelings at the time and realize that we were primarily reminded of our own mortality. Thus, our minds wander quickly but ably over the literal rush of emotions, thoughts, and considerations associated with the individual, including a cursory examination of the effects of the individual's demise. i.e. those individuals 'left behind' who possibly relied upon the now dead person for their own survival and prosperity. None of which means a damned thing to the now dearly departed.
Unfortunately, psychological studies concerning grief management have shown that a funeral has helped the mental states of one’s surviving relatives, friends, and others. As such studies indicate (google them yourselves), postmortem adjudicating the worth of the death gives closure to the deceased friends and family. Many sentimental quotes have arisen in the posthumous examinations of individuals throughout history.
Humanity seems intent upon remembering your life, but only after you are dead and can no longer prove our eulogies to be undeserved. Until some asshole does a little too much research. Many ‘great’ men and women have been brought down to the common human level by historians, archeologists, and text experts. A personal thank you to these detective/scholars is not only warranted, but required. They have offered the rest of us a means of justifying our skepticism during the reading of the lavishly hyperbolized accounts of our meager existences.
A recent article by Christopher Hitchens details his feelings concerning the death of a soldier in Iraq by an IED (Vanity Fair Nov 2007). Hitchens felt that his words were the impetus for the young man to volunteer his service in ‘defense’ of his country. Certainly, one could say that was the case. However, the young man had given thought to his own mortality and weighed it against the optimum benefits of the risk. This man had left instructions to spread his ashes out at an Oregon beach considered special to his family. I completely understand the need that this family had for closure, but I cannot rationally justify it based upon the expense incurred and inconvenience cumbered by those charged with transport and care of the corpse. Was it really necessary to do all this in order for people to remember who this young man was and what he did? Was the fact that he died in service to his country inadequate for these ‘patriots’ psychological need for closure?
Likewise psychologically motivated also are the actions of the WBC (Westboro Baptist Church). Once the primary objection to the WBC was their protestation of soldier’s funerals. This was done under the guise of giving us the message of holy retribution from a ‘fag-hating’ god allegedly killing our children for our sins of tolerance. Countless people turned out to protest the protestors. Inevitably, many forgot the names of the dead persons in favor of remembering that the WBC was in attendance. I went to one such funeral for a girl named Nicole Ford. She was not in the armed forces, but nevertheless a soldier in her own right. The WBC reason given for protesting her funeral was that she was “a little ho” for having a child out of wedlock. Strangely enough, I have decided that I will not be among those protesting the funeral of Shirley Phelps-Roper for the very same reason (i.e. illegitimate childbearing) when the world is rid of her. Simply because the world can’t stand THAT much hypocrisy without short-circuiting itself. Let her die. I will not waste gas and food money just for my own peace of mind that her family would have to go through my screams of: “Enjoy oblivion you witless twat”, “Where’s your god now?” and/or “science shouldn’t save the wicked” etc.(I have more, but I feel the point has been made.)
Throughout recorded history, both ancient and modern, we can see evidence of our propensity for funerary obnoxiousness; polite and rude. I watched tv as the ‘faithful’ played a game of Palestinian rugby with the corpse of Yassir Arafat. More recently, the push-and-shoot-while-shoving funeral of Benazir Bhutto resembled a game of ambulance polo. Both these reels of video footage are forever burned into my mind and add yet another catalyst to the reaction I have toward any funeral ceremony. While not the ‘rule’, these are some gruesome exceptions worthy of examination in my opinion.
Likewise, we have literally thousands of examples of the converse of those instances. The pyramids, while amazing to view even in pictures, were merely ostentatious tombs for ancient dictators. An entire valley in Egypt is dedicated to long dead kings. This place is still revered today. The corpses of the Pharaohs so ensconced were treated with the utmost respect during the mummification process. Including the use of a single individual to make the incision needed to remove the internal organs for placement into canopic jars for ‘eternal’ preservation. The dead ruler was buried with not only his/her favorite possessions, but also his/her favorite servants whether they were ready or not.
Burial mounds filled with dead Native Americans that mimic small hills dot the North American landscape. Seemingly these are discovered every other time the land is disturbed for urban development. Two years ago, a major downtown development was halted upon discovering that it was an inhumation locale for not one, but three tribes of Native Americans. It has since sat idle leaving the city council in a quandary much to the amusement of the initial opponents of the development. How odd? This is seemingly unethical behavior on both sides given the societal mores in place concerning respect for the dead.
While the aforementioned burial ground occupies perhaps two acres of land, entire vast fields are allotted for burial grounds such as: Arlington National Cemetery, the Normandy D-Day beachheads, and many others. Even the British Isles boast their graves and tombs for various and sundry dead ‘celebrities’ of modern and medieval times. Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris has been visited by millions of fans of ‘The Doors’. Fans leave little items or graffiti in offering to the dead icon. John Lennon’s memorial in Central Park, New York City is treated with the same reverence due a rock ‘n roll icon.
Elvis’ mansion is an entire location dedicated to the ‘king’ including the toilet he was allegedly found dead upon. Fans, haters, and profiteers descended upon Memphis after it was discovered that there was memorabilia to buy, sell, or steal. Truly, have they no respect for the dead? Lol. Hint for the non-Tennesseans: Do not go to Graceland in August. The ‘filth’ is difficult to wash off and you’ll feel dirty even afterward. Redneck tears contain either copious amounts of beer or mascara.
Iconic ‘resting’ places are worshipped by the modern idolaters in society, but we also venerate our lost ‘heroes’. The tombs of famous leaders long dead are awarded special placement in their respective places. Lenin in Red Square, Marx in London, Mao Tse-Tung in Tiananmen Square, Grant where and when? It took nearly twelve years for U.S. Grant to be ensconced in his tomb in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. Prior to that, his body was bounced around hither and yon with much ado for 16 days before being placed in a temporary grave. Abraham Lincoln’s casket and corpse went on a circuitous rail-trip through the state of New York before making its way to Springfield, Illinois. It took 19 days for Mr. Lincoln to go from the deathbed to the grave. Special flyers detailing the train’s stops were circulated throughout the Midwest in newspapers and bulletins. Allegedly 300 mourners rode the train along with the coffins of Lincoln and his son who had been disinterred to be reburied with his father. Many other presidents were accorded similar treatments. I included these two examples because my civil war folder was easily accessible. If needed to further accentuate this point, I can offer my service to research other president’s equally ridiculous pre- and post- mortuary rituals.
Among even greater leaders, Alexander the Great’s tomb has been a subject of curiosity for centuries after having disappeared around the time of Theodosius, the pagan hater. It is alleged that Octavian visited Alexander’s tomb and ignored those of the Ptolemies. He stated: “My wish was to see a King, not corpses.” The idea that Alexander accomplished a great deal in his short life seems to degrade the endeavors of the Ptolemaic dynasty even now. I wonder how many of my contemporaries could name more than two. Yet I do not honor their graves, nor do I Alexander’s. I’m much more interested in their lives and what they said and accomplished rather than where they were buried. According to the catholic church, Alexander’s ‘soul’ would probably be in ‘hell’, too tortured to worry whether or not people could place crowns or flowers on his corpse. Likewise, dead is dead to most of us. He can’t care or even know that his cadaver is lost to the world.
Here is where we step off the deep end into mental suspension. The christian idol, jesus, was allegedly entombed only to resurrect three days later. His supposed death, entombment, and subsequent resurrection are the subject of the last few chapters of each of the gospels (Thanks to the addition of Mark 16:9-20) and the apostle Paul’s entire repertoire. Suspending my disbelief for a moment, I recall that this jesus told a disciple to “let the dead bury the dead” which is one piece of the alleged christ’s doctrine with which I can wholeheartedly agree. Yet still the christians pay more homage through symbolism to the method of their alleged savior’s demise than they do to his life’s words and works. Even the cute little fish symbol placed appropriately on the rear of vehicles has its roots in persecution of the adherents rather than the person worshipped. The catholics put the whole (pardon the pun) bloody scene around their necks for display while the more moderate followers just put the cross. Of course, all of that ignores the very fact that christian doctrine preaches the ‘soul’ and not the body as the important facet of life and death. Why didn’t Paul/Saul take care of this unchecked distortion of pneumatic worship?
Suffice it to say that the muslims still have their prophet’s body in Medina safe from the western defilers. It is revered as the second holiest mosque in all of islam and Medina the second holiest city. One wonders if they had to play a game of ‘smear the prophet’ in order to get this ‘prize of a human being’ under the stones of that mosque. Truly, if I thought it would make a difference then I would advocate helping the city of Medina live up to it’s translation of ‘the glowing city’. We could do so under the guise of turning the prophet’s final resting place into a field of beaded glass. Unfortunately, I sincerely doubt that even the modern day caliph (whomever and wherever he is) would give a scorpion’s shit worth of care even if the prophet’s head faced away from Mecca.
Let us now ask the unanswered question of ourselves. Does any of the pomp and circumstance matter to the dead? The answer is wholly subjective to us as living beings. Some of us want a big funeral with lots of friends and family to 'say goodbye' to us. Some of us would be happy with cremation and our ashes spread over something significant to our lives. I ask you: What difference does it make? You're DEAD. Regardless of your ideological views concerning posthumous experiences or the lack thereof, one should be able to see the underlying inanity of an earthly remembrance ceremony for 'us'. For instance, I am an atheist that believes that death is death. No brain function means no life in my personal viewpoint. Being such an individual means to me that whatever you want to do with my carcass is fine by me. I won't know or care what anyone does with my body.
Likewise, a christian with an afterlife belief has no reason whatsoever to concern themselves with the trivial happenings to their 'earthly' body. After all, they are allegedly heading to a 'better place' right? Conversely, if they're headed for their hell then isn't the alleged torture inflicted upon the 'soul' and more arduous than mortal bodies can imagine? Muslims are promised a paradise or a hell as well. As much of a paradise that 72 clear raisins can be at least. I think it is plain to see that a funeral FOR the deceased serves the deceased adherents of those ideologies no real purpose at all.
There are religions that require the individual be interred with all of their body parts intact or preserved according to traditional practices. However, the gala funerary ritual such as a k'vad homet (sp?) specifically performed by a chevra kaddisha in Judaism. I suppose it is important to note that there is much more to a jewish funeral and subsequent mourning than I care to expound upon here. Of all the various faiths in the world, these people will be the hardest to try to convince that funerals are the most obtuse tradition that we still practice.
Of the major expenses associated with your life, a funeral is typically in the top five. Upwards of $10,000 US will be spent to bury you at a minimum. Estimates of cremation expenses are varied from $600 to $2,000 US. Donation of one’s body to science can even cost money for transport of the cadaver. Many families have more trouble paying just the funeral bill after the death of a loved one let alone any debts incurred by them while alive.
Although the utilization of dead bodies in research is one of the better uses in my opinion, it can still cost a great deal of money since there are guards paid to baby-sit the dead. This cost is passed onto the taxpayers, labs, and ultimately the students of the research facilities. The Tennessee ‘Body Farm’ (officially Forensic Anthropology Research Facility), ran by the University of Tennessee and a man named Bill Bass, have recently asked for more land on which to research cadaver physiology or taphonomy. More land, more security, and more bodies to leave out in the southern sun to rot away and be measured. This research is used by forensic pathologists throughout the world to determine everything associated with death and dying. Admirable work it is. However, extra expenses occur in order to treat the dead bodies with ‘reverence’. Funerals conducted for the bodies no longer suitable for study at the ‘Body Farm’ are conducted at the expense of the program. Meanwhile, future forensic scientists must pay increasingly higher tuition costs for the classes.
Essentially, the only limit to the amount of money made from the dead is the number of dead people available. Strangely, there is no shortage of ‘disposable’ income for the morticians. Nor is there a shortage of funds available to the newspapers, which use the dead to attract readers to the obituary section. Funeral homes spend thousands of dollars in advertising with newspapers, radio, television, and internet media outlets every week. Newspapers often feature ‘free’ obituaries. Typically, there are charges for a photo or additional words to go along with the obituary. Local radio stations feature the reading of obituaries during their morning broadcasts. There are vast amounts of money to be made in the business of advertising the handling of the dead.
Consistently, newer ideas for the preservation of corpses are tried by the rich. This includes such things as hermetically sealed coffins, cryogenic chambers, and even just the freezing of one’s cadaverous stem cells for future ‘recycling’ in the hope that some piece of the pre-death ‘consciousness’ will remain encoded in the genetic material. These are the high-dollar options of the uber-rich and self-important who adhere to the advice of usurious counselors preying upon the innate human fear of mortality.
Coupled with them are the criminals engaged in life insurance gambling. When one purchases life insurance, it is normally thought that money will be 100% for your family’s well-being once you begin rotting. However, after estate taxes, burial fees, lawyer fees, and debts they are looking at chump-change compared to what you were bringing into the home. I’m sad to say it, but betting your going to die doesn’t seem to be a good gamble after all. Nearly the only place a person can receive even fake assurance that the money spent on life insurance is worthwhile is by paid actors on the commercials advertising the companies willing to bet that you won’t die until they get a profit. Quite often we watch documentaries of murders occurring for the express purpose of collecting said life insurance money from the demise of a spouse or elder.
What does $10,000 US buy in the way of funeral accoutrements? A casket often handmade by crafters with finely painted walls, sealing hinges, finely threaded linen cushions for your dead ass to lay upon in your ‘eternal slumber’, and expensive bars for people to carry your carcass to the cemetery. Also included in the price is: a makeover to try to help you look less dead, a hole in the ground, a headstone marking, a ride in a hearse, and a party attended by people both loved and loathed. Does this sound like a bargain? Nevermind, I forgot you were dead and incapable of voicing your opinion about such matters.
Today in a small city south of Nashville, eight people died. Five of old age, two of cancer, and one in an auto accident. Approximately $80,000 US goes to the three funeral homes mentioned in the obituaries of the deceased. Tomorrow will be comparable. I have found that eight is the median number of funerals per day in this town with a population of approximately 34,000. Those 34,000 people, with roughly 50% of them below the poverty line indexed by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, are typically saddened by the loss of life occurring. However, they are woefully not equipped to understand that the money being spent to inter their dead ‘neighbors’ could possibly have much grander uses.
Charged with many glorious glittering generalities, the government seems to have faltered in keeping its promises made in the preamble of the Constitution.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
‘promote the general Welfare’ has an interesting ‘ring’ to it, doesn’t it? I watch as sickly little men and women work in their jobs; happy to be alive, but unhealthy due to a lack of money for ‘doctoring’. I watch as they go through the motions of life seemingly without really living to the bourgeois eye. Of course, there are occasional acts of contrition made by the wealthy in control of the purse-strings of the government. But honestly, can we really say that enough is being done? Of course not.
Let me ask you to suspend your grasp upon ‘what is’ and entertain a thought of ‘what should be’ for just a moment. We have already examined that roughly $80,000 per day in a small city are spent needlessly in an attempt to reconcile our grief over the loss of loved ones. Certainly a fleeting feeling once the realization that they are gone ‘hits’ us. What if we were to channel those funds into the preservation of life? What if we used just enough money to bury ol’ Clem in a cheap box somewhere in a field away from the planning commission’s next development project? How about if we use just enough fuel to turn him into ashes and put him into a Tupperware container? Where oh Where would we most like to spend the money, time, and effort that we are saving by ‘streamlining’ the process of disposing of the dead? I have an idea or two.
Stem cell research, which has been poorly funded by the Bush administration, could be fully-funded if we suspend indefinitely our present funerary customs in favor of more efficient corpse disposal.
Universal health care, long a dream of the American working class, could become reality in weeks after we discontinue inhumation obnoxiousness.
Morticians in their quest for the ultimate means of preserving dead tissue could still apply their trade in the form of pre-death medicinal pursuits.
Education could receive additional funding.
Many funding reallocation efforts at once could be pursued, but chiefly among all of these is: ‘promoting the general Welfare’ through ridding ourselves of these ludicrous expenditures ingrained in our traditions by our ancestors and the religious. By doing so, we allow ourselves to pursue living endeavors including our own desires. How much money would you have now if not for the recent death of a loved one? How much more money would line the pockets of your beneficiaries after your demise?
I submit to you that not only are funerary rituals unnecessary, but also harmful to society as a whole. As such, I propose the precept of funerals to be an irrational one worthy of ethical evaluation regarding their continuation as a practice due to their detrimental effects upon the progression of humanity as a whole.