May 13, 2013
Monday, 13th May 2013
Rationalists and secularists in the old plain style were very clear about death and dying, or at least they tried to be. “It’s just a nothing,” they would say: “the lights go out and then the curtain falls.” I won’t exist after I die, but then I didn’t exist before I was born, so what’s the big deal? It’s going to happen anyway, so just get over it. We are only forked animals after all, and when the time comes you should give my body to medical science, or burn it and use it as fertiliser; or why not eat it, if you’re hungry, or feed it to the pigs? And for goodness sake, don’t worry about how I died – whether peacefully or in pain – and don’t speculate about my last thoughts, my last sentiments or my last words. Why attach more importance to my dying moments than to any other part of my life? As for the business of seeing the body and saying goodbye, and the trouble and expense of coffins and flowers and funerals: what are they but relics of morbid superstitions that we should have got rid of centuries ago? So no fuss, please: the world belongs to youth and the future, not death and the past: go ahead and have a party if you must, with plenty to drink, but no speeches, nothing maudlin, no tears, nothing that might silence the laughter of children. And I beg you, no memorials of any kind: no stones, no plaques, no shrines, no park benches, no tree-plantings, no dedications: let the memory of who I was die with me.
In practice it has not always been so easy, and those of us who think of ourselves as CORPSES (Children of Rationalist Parents) may find ourselves seriously embarrassed when it comes to carrying out the wishes of our progenitors when they die. Bans on mourning and demands for oblivion are not going to have much effect when we are wracked with grief – when happiness is the last thing we want, when we find ourselves dwelling in remorse and remembrance and will not be comforted. Hence one of the most conspicuous elements in the transformation of rationalism in recent decades: the rise of a burgeoning service industry supplying secular celebrants for humanist funerals, to fill a ritualistic gap that earlier generations would not have wanted to acknowledge.
The decline of hardline rationalism about bereavement may be part of a global social trend towards blubbering sentimentality and public exhibitions of grief: Princess Diana and all that. But there could be something more serious behind it too: a suspicion that the no-nonsense approach to death advocated by pure-minded atheists bears a horrible resemblance to the attitudes that lie behind the great political crimes of the 20th century – Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massified deaths of two world wars, the millions discarded as obstacles to progress in the Soviet Union and China, and of course the Nazi death camps.
If Holocaust stories are uniquely hard to bear, it is not because they describe suffering, death and humiliation on a bewildering scale, but because of the calculated impersonality and disinterested anonymity with which they were inflicted on their victims. In a restrained and startlingly beautiful new memoir called Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, the historian Otto Dov Kulka allows himself, after 70 years of reticence, to recall his life as a little boy in the grotesque quasi-normality of the “family camp” Auschwitz-Birkenau – an institution designed to provide Red Cross officials with living evidence that the inmates of Polish camps were happy and healthy and well looked after, though in reality they were destined for extermination like everyone else.
In a pivotal chapter Kulka prints translations of three poems, written in Czech from the point of view of a young female prisoner. One of them declares that “I’d sooner die a coward than have blood on my hands,” and others speak of the prospect of leaving nothing to be remembered by: there will be no “wreaths or wrought-metal grilles” for those about to die, or for “betrayed youth” – but perhaps “no monument is needed.” These are fine poems, but more than that too. They were written, as Kulka explains, on flimsy letter paper and thrust into the hands of a Kapo by a girl about to walk into a gas chamber. Later they were passed to Kulka’s father, and, by a series of chances, saved from the destruction that engulfed almost everything else.
No one will ever know who the poet was, what she looked like, who she loved or where she came from: her name has been wiped from the historical record, along with any facts or memories or anecdotes that might distinguish her from six million other victims of mass murder. Maybe it’s because I’m a sentimentalist that I feel twinges of reverence for the words on those frail pieces of paper. Maybe my fellow atheists will accuse me of religion-envy, but I cannot help lamenting the impossibility of an individual commemoration for the lost poet. The fact that no trace remains seems like an aggravation of a crime against humanity, a gratuitous exacerbation of injustice.
As far as the old-style rationalists were concerned, any desire to ritualise death and remember the dead was a sign of a failure of nerve, and an inability to grow out of religious indoctrination – especially all that Christian stuff about personal survival, arraignment before a divine judge and consignment to heaven or hell. But in fact Christianity does not speak with one voice when it comes to death and dying. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus issued a severe reprimand to a disciple who wanted to give his father a proper funeral: get back to work at once, he said, and “let the dead bury their dead.” The rebuke may seem like an enlightened anticipation of 20th-century rationalism, but it is also perfectly consistent with some main doctrines of Christianity: if the body is just a temporary home for an immortal soul, and a perpetual temptation to sin, then the sooner we shuffle it off the better.
The Egyptians, lacking the assurance of eternal life, had favoured mummification and entombment, at least for the ruling elite, while the Greeks and Romans preferred cremation and a good epitaph, and the Jews went in for speedy burials, usually in communal graves. But the Christians, with their confident expectation of a life after death, had no need for such pagan mumbo-jumbo.
On the whole the early Christians preferred burial to cremation, but they were not dogmatic about it and either way they tried to follow Jesus’s austere advice, eschewing funeral ritual except in special cases. They did not have to worry about the physical remains of Jesus himself, since they held that his body had been lifted up to heaven a couple of days after being taken down from the cross. But then there was Simon Peter, whom they took to be Jesus’s chosen successor as leader of his sect and founder of his church. Simon Peter had come to Rome, where he was eventually executed by crucifixion, on the orders of the Emperor Nero. But the Christians seem to have recovered his body and buryied it somewhere on the Mons Vaticanus on the west bank of the Tiber, and when they began to win tolerance in Rome, two centuries later, they built themselves a church whose altar was supposed to mark the site of St Peter’s grave.
By that time several thousand Christians had been murdered in Rome – burned alive as human torches, or torn apart by dogs or lions – and their co-religionists always did their best to defy imperial persecution by retrieving the bodies and laying them in vast underground catacombs, as if they were not dead but sleeping. (They referred to the catacombs as coemeteria, or “cemeteries”, borrowing the Greek word for a dormitory.) Ordinary martyrs were not given individual funeral rites, but members of the ecclesiastical elite could look forward to fully personalised ceremonies and permanent memorials. The official successors to St Peter – the Bishops of Rome, later known as Popes or Pontiffs – could expect to be buried in proximity to him inside his church on the Vatican. And then there were the saints, some of them quite humble, who were supposed to have performed miracles: their corpses, which were thought to retain some vestige of their unearthly powers, were liable to be dismembered so that communities of believers all over the empire could each have a holy finger or leg or head or heart to venerate – an abuse, no doubt, by the standards of modern healthcare, but still an honour of a kind.
When it comes to the treatment of dead bodies, there has always been a joker in the Christian theological pack: the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Building on various hints in the gospels and the book of Revelation, Christians came to think that God might blow a silver trumpet at any moment, to signal the end of the game of life on earth. When that day came, they thought, the bodies of true believers would regenerate and refurbish themselves, all present and correct and primed for eternal bliss. But the doctrine of resurrection was at constant risk of collapsing into bathetic comedy. Would it be dangerous to go out while the disassembled body parts of saints flew through the air for their ultimate reunion? Would cripples be cured, and amputees made whole? Would the slow work of the worms be undone in a trice?
And what about bodies that had been corrupted by illness, eaten by animals, or consumed by fire? If you wanted to preserve your simple Christian faith, it was best not to pry too far, but simply to accept that the matter had been left in good hands. But if the logistical problems of bodily resurrection were really going to be taken care of on the last day, then there was, as Jesus himself suggested, no real need to worry about the condition of a corpse: God was going to restore it anyway, making it good as new, without any help from his admirers. On the other hand it would be churlish to make his job more difficult than it had to be, at such a busy time, so Christians began to make a habit of leaving the bodies of their dead in a clean and tidy state, as their owners would hope to find them.
Christian attitudes to corpses are a mass of doctrinal confusion: a nightmare for the kind of intellectual historian who wants to make sense of past beliefs, but a gift to any writer with an eye for human oddity and an interest in our ability to believe impossible things. Hence the charm of How to Read a Graveyard , in which Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald , invites us to accompany him on trips to various cemeteries, from the grandest to the most unassuming. He begins in the caves and tunnels beneath St Peter’s in Rome, where the early Christian burial sites lie cheek by jowl with pagan ones, noting that the Christians did not share the pagan concern with recording the names of the deceased.
They may have thought that the task of identification could be left to God, but in any case they were, as Stanford demonstrates, forgiving and forgetful, and not really as interested in permanence as they pretended. Exceptions might be made for popes and saints, and later for emperors and their consorts, kings and queens, lords and ladies and great benefactors, but as a general rule the grave was only a temporary resting place, where a body might stay till it turned into a skeleton, at which point it could be removed to a charnel house or unceremoniously chucked away.