Pushing up daisies in style
DE RERUM NATURA - DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia () - November 2, 2006 - 12:00am
You can now order coffins online. Just like many other things that the Internet has made democratic, we can now include the packaging of death as one of them. In one US website of caskets for sale, they even counseled that you should not be forced by your chosen funeral home to buy a casket from them. They even added that you be beware of claims about the quality of the casket, saying, "It should be noted that no coffin could preserve a body forever." This was quite puzzling. Do people who bury their dead really worry about this when they pick a coffin? Death is already proof that all the life-preserving and anti-aging potions have inevitably yielded to the cellular clock so it is worrisome that people who are left behind sort of count on caskets to do the job that medical science had yet failed to achieve in life. Refrigerated coffins have been used to preserve death but it does not reverse time’s arrow. In no time can we expect this prolonged preservation of death to result in a future dead man walking. (Someone please have the heart to tell the former First Lady of this point in science.)

Suffused with this seasonal feedings of ghosts and the paranormal from the media, including even bulleted points of what to look out for in candidates for exorcism, I wanted to find a way of thinking about funeral and burial rites without getting mired in claims of ghosts and demons. I am appalled by the conspicuous absence of any scientific (or even simply logical!) footnoting of any media coverage that features these paranormal claims. There is a $1-million offer by the James Randi Educational Foundation (www.randi.org/research/index.html), "to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event." "Proper observing conditions" means they should be able to demonstrate it with transparency. This transparency is the same demand we make of everyday things in the natural world so we could operate around them reliably. For instance, we build a solid wall to reliably deter passage of people and things. We build staircases because we know that no amount of wishes to float can get us to the upper floors without having a budget and design that could rival that of NASA’s training spaceship. To say that ghosts are governed by a different set of laws is simply lazy reasoning. If a ghost is claimed to be haunting an entire house for generations of residents and guests, why should the presence of a camera and a few open-minded scientists in that same house in a day or two deter the ghost’s persistence? A historically persistent ghost clearly has an attention deficit issue, so it does not make sense why it should be camera shy. If you say they appear only when you believe, then it is personal and therefore lives in your mind. In such case, it may be good to find out why your mind is, shall we say, so darn unique. A horizontal visit to the MRI machine may be a good way to peer into the neural details of this uniqueness.

If these ghosts could appear in this same world, then they should be able to conform to the same laws that govern this world. In fact, many self-proclaimed ghost busters sport gadgets that have to do with detecting changes in temperature, pressure, and even in the electromagnetic field! One is not exempt from gravity just because one does not understand or like how gravity really works. For all that has been claimed, no one has been able to document human levitation without any technological aids. So until James Randi has awarded the $1 million, I think we should all treat claims of these ghosts for entertainment purposes. There is nothing wrong with that. We do that all the time when we watch movies and we pretend that the things that are frightening on screen are real. Fear in little doses is necessary to be alert but to have it permanently is paranoia and to choose it as a way of life is idiotic. For you to extend that state of entertainment and healthy self-foolery to every aspect of your life will get your senses all tangled up like spaghetti.

Take, for instance, this vampire myth. Good thing that a physicist from the University of Central Florida was recently interviewed by Livescience.com’s Sara Goudarzi. He illustrated very simple straightforward mathematics that will leave you with nothing to feed on in terms of spreading that myth. Since legends would have it that the first vampire came into being in 1600 (assuming in January), Professor Costas Efthimiou simply retrieved the data on human population from that year. It turned out that in 1660, there were 536,870,911 people in the world. Even assuming that a vampire was always on a diet and only feeds once a month, the total number of vampires will be two in February 1600, four in March and so on. Even if the highest reproductive rates and mortality rates were assumed for that period, by around June 1603, or within two and half years, ALL human population would have become vampires with NOT a single neck left to suck blood from. So the next time you and your friends go visit a cemetery to slay some vampires, remember the math.

A beginning archaeology course often, if not always, includes a "cemetery project." I have read the syllabus of these courses and they give those who take them a rich way of organizing the way humans have ritualized death and the memory of the departed. No zapping of demons, vampires and ghosts, but instead they gather insights about human beliefs about the great unknown, the different ways we mark the edge of our personal meanings when we lose the ones we love, and sadly, in most of our local cemeteries, the insistence, even to the very end, on the divide between those who can afford the grand marble mausoleums versus the lowly half-baked cement swept over a gaping hole. It was very interesting to see a recent news feature of local coffins being made out of woven newspaper. But this is what makes archaeology a science, it looks for evidence of material cultures and suggest what they could have possibly meant for a given culture, what they valued and believed in.

I think that archaeology students will have the most enlightening time studying death rituals in Ghana. For 50 years now, Ghana has been making custom-tailored coffins, usually based on the trade of the dead – hammer-shaped coffins for carpenters, spacious pink fish-shaped coffins for fishermen, a uterus-shaped casket with ovaries for a gynecologist (looks like a shiny cooked mud crab). There are pineapple-shaped ones and others based on varied fruits. Some coffins are configured by the unfulfilled dream of the dead – like an airplane. There are also hobby-inspired coffins like Air Jordan sneakers for a Jordan fan, a microphone-shaped coffin, probably for the once karaoke addict and – I am not making this up – coffins shaped like a beer bottle, a mobile phone and a Coke bottle! Odd as it may seem to most, I find this practice more meaningful. To only see the things that the coffins resemble is to miss the point entirely. It celebrates the things that the ones who lived with us loved and dreamed of – planes, shoes, phones, hammers, even pineapples! While they were living, they touched these once "neutral" things and made them alive in their care for the rest of the world to sense. These odd coffins refocus the attention of the living from the date of death to that dash – that "–" written between the date of birth and the date of death. They remind us that it is all about cultivating wonder about life – every detail of it and with living, loving and dreaming with all that we are. It fleshes out what I think Pablo Neruda expressed at the end of his poetry Oda a las Cosas (Ode to Things):

"My hand did not merely touch them,

but rather

they befriended

my existence

in such a way

that with me, they indeed existed,

and they were for me so full of life,

that they lived with me half alive,

and they will die with me half-dead."
* * *
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