Friday, October 28, 2011

That Old Black Magic

For reasons without solid connection to anything dark or gloomy, my thoughts yesterday began roaming over the customs that surround the modern approach to death, and the treatment we give to honor and respect our deceased loved ones. Practices are not the same everywhere and ceremonies vary greatly in some cases, but there are ideas and steps taken in Western culture that have an ancient resonance.

Our word “funeral” derives from the Latin funus meaning “torch,” stemming from the Roman practice of lining the route to a burial site with flaming torches to guide the departed soul to its eternal abode. The Romans also believed that lighted candles placed around the deceased would frighten away spirits hoping to reanimate the corpse and take possession of it. The use of candles at modern day services for the dead extends back to that old custom. Traditions surrounding death, in Western cultures at least, pre-date the Romans and have been ongoing for something like 50,000 years. Archeology has traced the funeral tradition back to Western Asia’s Neanderthal man and found that they began the practice of burying their dead, interring the deceased with food, weapons for hunting, and charcoal for fire. In a final homage they scattered flowers over the body.

There is nothing inherently respectful about the color black and the wearing of black at funerals grew not out of respect, but out of fear. In ancient societies a stranger, a foe or a dead body were each something to be feared and it was this fear that brought black into ceremonies involving the dead. Anthropology has taught us that primitive white men painted their bodies black at funerals in an attempt to disguise themselves from spirits. Like the Roman tradition of torches and candlelight, the idea of black worked its way down to us in a slightly altered form. Rather than paint, people began covering themselves in black clothing for rites of the dead. Those relatives who wore black for weeks or months were not necessarily paying respect, but hiding behind protective camouflage. The wearing of a veil as well came out of this fear.

In ancient Sumeria the family of the deceased wove large baskets from plaited twigs to place the deceased into for burial and interestingly enough, the word “coffin” comes from a Greek word for “basket.” But here again, the placement of a dead body in a basket, or other container is a custom that grew out of fear. Some societies went even further in their attempts to prevent haunting and cut off the head and feet before binding the body securely. The route to a place of burial was circuitous and confusing so as to stymie the corpse’s return to home.

These precautions were not enough to assuage the fears of the living, and so further measures were devised to make burial permanent. Six feet under was a comforting precaution, but to that had to be added a wooden coffin, with the lid solidly nailed shut. Archeology has unearthed coffins that show evidence of once being sealed with many more nails than needed. After the coffin with all its nail-tight closure was placed in the ground, the next barrier-to-escape came with the placement of a large and heavy stone on top of the coffin. The dirt was filled in and a final large stone was placed on top of the grave—a tombstone.

Fear kept burial sites lonely and untended and it was many years before people began visiting the places where deceased family and friends lay in their eternal rest. In time it became a practice to inscribe names on the large stones seated upon the graves, eventually leading to longer inscriptions to include dates and a few meaningful words.

1 comment:

  1. Lots I found fascinating about something that is such a part of our lives and rarely talked about. Interesting, the custom of black as applied to funerals. And I must be more than interested since a play I've had the most success with is about pallbearers as uneasy friends as they wait for the ceremony to begin. Appropriate post as we approach Halloween.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America