Last night I found myself at the incredibly bizarre Last Tuesday Society. The Society is a tiny shop with a red basement filled with oddities; hybrid taxidermy, skeletons, bizarre art & pornography are mounted on the walls/ displayed in glass cases. They even had a fake mummified mermaid; to say that the Last Tuesday Society is creepy as hell is a bit of an understatement.
Regardless, I sat at the back of a cramped little room on a plastic foldout chair to listen to a lecture on the very appropriate topic of Death & Funeral practices around the world. The speaker was one Sarah Murray, a dark eyed and fascinating woman, who was promoting her book Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre, How we Dignify the Dead.
Writer and journalist Sarah Murray never gave much thought of what might ultimately happen to her remains. That was until her father died. Puzzled by the choice he made for the disposal of his “organic matter,” she set off on a series of voyages to discover how death is celebrated and commemorated in different cultures.
Her lecture was incredibly compelling. I thought I would share with you some of the more unusual and interesting things she discussed.
BALI HINDU CREMATION CEREMONY
Murray had the fortunate luck to make it to Bali in time for a Hindu Royal Cremation.
You can gather the scope of the event from the video above. The cremation itself involved a knife being passed around until it eventually made its way to the top of the decorative bull where it then cut a strip down the bull’s spine. The body of the king was wrapped in white and was lowered down into the bull. The beast was then set on fire. The bull itself took only about 20 minutes to burn but the body took another 2 hours. She marks it as quite an incredible spectacle to behold, especially as the flames shot out of the nose and mouth of the animal. The mood was also infectious as it was a celebration not a mourning; anyone seen to be crying was escorted away as it is believed that negative energy impedes the spirits journey to the afterlife.
KUTNA HORA BONE CHURCH, CZECH REPUBLIC
The Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic is a spectacle to behold. It became highly popular destination for burial after 1278 when an Abbot returned from Palestine with a pocketful of soil which he scattered on the church grounds.
Due to the Thirty Years War in the 17th century (not to mention the Black Death in the mid-14th century), the churchyard soon ran out of room to bury the dead and many of the old bodies were exhumed and brought into the church where they were designed into stunning but morbid fixtures, including a giant chandelier. Officials speculate that there are the bones of 40,000- 70,000 people in this chapel.
CATACOMBE DEI CAPPUCCINI
A ghoulish spectacle to behold, the Catacombs in Sicily houses corpses in various states of preservation, ranging from the perfectly intact “Sleeping Beauty” to inhuman looking monsters. Many of them are strung up to the walls while others are in glass cases. Some of the bodies, if clothed, are wearing their original threads.
If you are keen to have nightmares tonight I recommend reading some HP Lovecraft and checking out the below video, especially around 40s in:
Murray also spoke of a small village in the Philippines where an old woman had passed away. The entire village gathered in her small house as her body was laid out and there they sat, all night, keeping her company until she was buried the next morning.
Apparently in certain regions in the Philippines there is a practice where you bury your loved one and three years later, dig them back up, clean their bones and place them in a pot. Only at this time are they officially laid to rest and the family can properly move on.
The Ghanian coffins are so intricate and expensive that the World Bank reportedly discouraged the country from lavishing so much money on funerals as it is causing countless people to go bankrupt. Still, an extravagant funeral is a sign of wealth and prosperity, so the industry continues to thrive. The coffins are made to reflect who you were, often showing a job you might have had or a part of your personality.
In Hong Kong you can buy paper goods to burn and send to your loved ones in the afterlife.
The sick and elderly travel to the city of Varanasi, India, and beg for money to pay for the wood used in their own cremation. If they don’t their family may end up in a great deal of debt.
And in the USA? Well, this article is a pretty interesting example of the more extreme.
What does Sarah Murray have planned for her funeral? When she passes away she plans on being dissolved in an alkaline bath, which still does provide you with some ashes. Her ashes will be split up and put into small jars and divided up amongst various people. She will have choosen her favourite destinations over the globe and plans to have each set of ashes spread in those regions. The reason for her doing this is not because she believes that part of her will live on in these areas, though that is a nice thought. Her objective is simply that she wants to share her favourite places with others. Maybe by doing so they will be inspired; who knows what paths their lives might take next…
I think it’s a beautiful way to go. Regardless, I will be picking up the book.