Re: Dead body fetishism?

Arthur L. Baron (abaron@STU.ATHABASCAU.CA)
Thu, 25 Jul 1996 13:59:58 MDT

> I just heard a report about the tragic NY plane crash in which officials were
> saying that recovery of bodies took precedence over any investigative,
> forensic information. One official person promised the public that any
> sighting of a body would result in "rescue" (sic) of the body, even if
> evidence had to be destroyed, because it was more important to retrieve bodie
> than to to track down the perpetrators.

What is said and what is done can be two different things, I think Adrian
alluded to this. This investigation is going faster than the Lockerby crash.
Forensics also use bodies as sources of evidence, beit friendly fire,
terrorism, mechanical error, or human error.

> [If MY relative were involved, I'd be very offended by this; as a citizen and
> occasional flyer, ditto!]
> The Mass. governor just pledged to spend $1 to $5 million to drain a lake
> where a person was recently seen to drown--in order to retrieve the body.
> Financial and environmental questions took last place in comparison with
> retreiving the body.
Yes it could be self-promoting grandstanding in an election year or it could be
an ackowledgement of an important cultural custom.

> QUESTION: How recent is this fixation?? It strikes me as very odd and very
> unlike what *I* would wish upon the death of a loved one or of myself! Who
> exactly demands "a body" at any expense, including even prosecution of
> possible murderers? Immediate burial is a feature of orthodox Judaism (altho
> some exceptions occur), but why this general and fanatical obsession upon
> retrieval of bodies--beyond the need to know whether or not a loved one is
> dead?

bodies are important symbols to be treated in a prescribed manner often
directed by religious beliefs.

> This question obviously applies to the political fixation upon retrieving war
> dead and the "missing in action" in SE Asia. (Mass. law requires state
> facilities to fly a black MIA flag along with the US flag at UMAss and other
> govt. offices, for example.) Again, logic says that people will want to know
> the fate of kin and friends, but what explains the extreme fixation? In wars
> and disasters people do die, after all. The "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier" was
> an effective emotional monument and release of false hope for the WWII
> generation.

emotional monument ... or is it a monument to the extreme loss suffered by
those who could not complete the mourning ritual such as bathing the body,
wrapping the body, and providing a funeral of some sort as well as acting as a
burial site.

> Is there a modern--or US-ian--assumption that death is always controlled and
> explicable? Why this fairly new fixation upon (to be crude)
> cadaver-collecting? Which also seems to correspond with growing resistance t
> autopsies and postmortem analyses.

there is a growing resistance to the intrusion of science and technology onto
the quality of life and death is part of that quality.

> Is there a trade-off between this intense individualism-beyond-death and
> feelings of lack of control over tragedies?

I'm not sure this is what the process of grieving is all about - all animals
grieve in terms that humans understand. It is also a necessary step in dealing
with existential aloneness.

> Death is, of course, a major "transition" we all face, whatever our culture.
> *I* would argue that it is harder for its survivors than for the actual dead-
> hence my curiosity about what seems to me to be newly extreme interest in the
> dead within my own US and Western culture.
> --John R. Cole

Death is often equated with sleep in our culture. At rest we can be our most
vulnerable ("guarding up the slumbers"), ... In Flanders Fields: "We shall not
sleep ..." The metaphor of laying to rest implies a safe place for people to
sleep where they will not be disturbed. If you really want to heap scorn onto
a people desicrate their graves, cemetaries, tombs, etc; it is no coincidence
that special penalties in law for act of desicration exist. The message in
many cultures is - don't mess with our dead, and in the Mende tradition the
dead's name is never mentioned.

For some cultures, death is a state of unrest with disasterous outcomes for the
living if the dead are disturbed - again undisturbed, or at least appeased dead
are the goal. Once per year many Asians believe in picnicing at the gravesite,
bringing food, laughter, and company to their ancestors. I tried this this
summer at my father's gravesite - your senses are acute, you hear every blade
of grass move, the wind speaks to you, I didn't ask why questions - only felt.

Not so long ago, hanged criminals were buried at the crossroads along with
heavy symbolism, and many people (fallen women, unbaptised, heretics, and
others) could not be buried in hallowed ground, thus being condemned to wander
as spirits restlessly rather than sleeping peacefully until the Day of
Judgement. Every one has their belief system and the resting spirit is an
important factor.

This like any other cultural belief, it is not appropriate to evaluate (value
judge) by scientific value systems even if we employ scientific method to study
and characterize the belief system.