By Hannah Tyler
January. The bleakest of all the months. For each of the last two Januaries that have passed, people I know have passed with it. Both were old, their bodies refusing to obey the commands of their brains.
The day before my grandma’s funeral, I turned up at my grandparents’ house in the countryside. Bleak fields and bare trees. Her cousin wanted to see her. Reluctantly I was asked, did I want to go?
“No” said my brain.
“Yes,” said my mouth.
My father looked surprised. You don’t go see dead people anymore.
Being in a room with a body was strange. The funeral planner’s was a shop in the high street, like they were selling clothes or candles or something and not storing dead people in boxes. It felt both unnatural and profoundly ordinary all at once.
Why should it be so odd? People die all the time. It’s guaranteed for us and all the ones we love and all the ones we don’t. For something so inevitable, we spend a lot of time not talking about it. In our society, death—especially its physical reality—has become divorced from our everyday lives.
I wrote a list called How I Felt that Time I Saw a Dead Body to help me cope with my emotions. Strangely calm and slightly ill featured high up. But more important was reassured. She felt cold, but her skin still felt like skin. She was still her, and still a human being, but everything that made her her was gone. She was so lifelike, but so unmistakably dead. She was the remains of her blink out of existence.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the body started being removed from mourning rituals. The professionalisation of death took the body off show. Studies have shown that viewing bodies can be a source of reassurance. In engaging with death, our society may just be able to calm a little of the hum of anxiety that surrounds it.
When I die I want to become part of the earth again.
I want my body to break slowly into pieces. I want worms to crawl out of my eye sockets. The atoms that were me will break apart and eventually form something else. Who thinks about the physical reality of being alive in day-to-day life? Of our hearts beating away all the time. Of the organs inside our chests piled on top of one another. A precarious bag of moving parts.
But dead bodies used to grace our homes. They sat in the front parlour for friends and family to bid goodbye, having died at home instead of the hospital. Until the 1900s, a dead body found in public was often taken to the nearest pub until the cause of death could be determined.
Hospitals became places for bodies during the French Revolution, when medical science made leaps and bounds. Doctors and scientists started to see bodies as the resource they were: a way to make new discoveries and advance medical knowledge. As a result, attitudes towards death were transformed by an interest in identifying the best methods for prolonging life.
The bodies of hanged criminals served as the first specimens to be cut up by those attempting to advance the medical profession. Soon, the stealing of bodies was rife. Our current knowledge of anatomy was built on the bodies of the poor, taken without their consent.
Citing a cause of death only became a requirement in 1879. Today, legal death needs to be proven by a lack of one of the following: brain activity on an electroencephalograph, pupil reaction to light, cornea sensitivity, or a cough reflex.
It’s interesting that there’s no one way of ensuring the deceased is actually dead. As Christine Quigley points out in ‘The Corpse: A History‘, “the only sure sign of death is putrefaction”.
The body disappeared from public life, and soon it disappeared altogether. The First World War provided so many corpses not all could be taken home. The galloping pace of technology in the 20th Century providing the type of mechanised mass death that means that not all bodies could be recovered. Of the million British soldiers that left and didn’t return, only half received marked graves.
That left loved ones with no physical remains or physical memorial with which to perform a physical grieving process. Death as absence became normalised. Loved ones could as easily be dead as have gone for a holiday. Mourning became something that was done en mass.
When Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922, Western society came face-to-face with the relics of a culture that was just as haunted by death as we are. It’s no accident that we became fascinated by a culture that was not only obsessed with death, but also the physical rituals associated with it. There’s a squeamish physicality to the Egyptian grieving process. It was a culture that put the body front and centre of death.
By 1967, 58% of deaths in Britain took place in hospitals or nursing homes, compared to 13% in 1897. The people who worked in these institutions, the pathologists, morticians, doctors, and undertakers, were called ‘barrier death workers’. They hid both death and the dead from the general public. Their job remains, in part, to protect the rest of us from the physical reality of death. Their influence over death and their responsibility for it in our culture has only grown in the 21st Century.
The absence of bodies in front rooms was helpful containing the spread of disease, but what about our ability to mourn? The Victorians, left in the vacuum the absence of the body created, turned to locks of hair kept in lockets around necks, photos of the deceased and wearing black for prescribed lengths of time. Intensely dramatic, and ultimately a performance. We have lost their dramatic flair.
I’m standing out in the bitter cold. The only black shoes I have are flats with holes in them and I am regretting my choice. I’m at a 50s-style modernist brick chapel in the middle of England. It is ‘the Middle of England’ in all the conceivable ways.
We’re waiting for a hearse.
“When’s the body coming?”
“It’s your grandma.” This is from my aunt by marriage. A nurse who deals with cancer patients and sees death all the time.
I’m amused and slightly offended. Grandma has been gone for days, one could argue for years, and now we’re standing around waiting for her body to be destroyed too. The pretence of funerals has never resonated with me. Funerals should be dark and primal and intimate and weird. Absurdly funny is allowed, within reason.
The body is in the box, but no one gets to look in the box. The box is then burnt, but it is done behind a curtain. In a culture that favours the spectacular, why do we deny ourselves a good fire?
In 2010, Hindu healer Davender Kumar Ghai won an appeal to be able to have an open cremation. Not quite a pyre in a field, but one done in an enclosed space with an open roof and in compliance with environmental regulations. Justice Secretary Jack Straw believed the British public would “find it abhorrent” for human bodies to be burned in this way—but what makes it okay if it’s behind closed doors? His statement betrays a belief that an accepted Western way of dealing with death is somehow superior.
Did you know you can break a body down to nothing but bone ash using water and potassium hydroxide? An alternative market has formed around the idea of embracing death. Caitlin Doughty, known prominently for her YouTube series ‘Ask a Mortician’, founded The Order of The Good Death in 2011. The organisation has promoted different ways of disposing of a body: donating your body to science or medicine, even being made into a firework.
Deciding how our bodies will be disposed of gives us an element of control, something we don’t get much of in death. Our anxieties about death are wrapped up in our identities—our fears of being forgotten. To choose where our physical reality goes can help bring a sense of order to the chaotic.
Grief over losing a loved one is also tied up in our identities. Meghan O’Rourke, writing in The New Yorker, ascribes grief to dealing with one’s identity: “The more your identity was wrapped up with the deceased, the more difficult the loss.” When we form bonds and relationships, time and energy goes into them. Our place in society and the world is reaffirmed by these relationships, and when they go, the energy that went into their creation is displaced. Grief is a listless, harried feeling. It’s the displacement of energy.
We have a funeral, an accepted day of crying. And that, dear friends, is it. Grief is open ended, but by and large our cultural rituals associated with it only take one day. The rest of the time, it remains hidden. Our death rituals have grown solitary: visiting graves, talking to the dead. Other cultures—and our culture in the past—grieve as a community.
Psychological studies show that viewing the body can aid the grieving process. In the long term, people are usually pleased they went to see the body of a loved one after their death, despite how distressing it was at the time (especially if they were visibly injured). But even when the bodies were in a bad state, people only regretted seeing them if they had no choice in the matter or the bodies were inadequately prepared.
Most subjects interviewed in the studies mention how the body was ‘not them’ and that their loved ones ‘had already gone’. They felt compelled to see the body through a sense of responsibility or wanting to see that their loved ones were okay.
If people feel a certain sense of responsibility for seeing loved individuals when they’ve died, maybe we as a culture should feel a certain sense of responsibility for understanding ourselves as physical beings, as it may bring a better acceptance of death. “Experience with death lessens its mystery, at least physically,” writes Quigley. To deny our physical deaths is to deny our humanity, to deny our reality. There’s an intimacy in the body; not even the owner has a true knowledge of what happens inside. The subtext of talking about death is assessing how well we are living.
What would I do if I had six months to live? really means Is the way I’m living right now really the way I want to live? Talking about death isn’t difficult because of its brutal physicality. It’s difficult because it means confronting certain truths about ourselves. A hard process, but a positive one. For us individually, and as a culture.
A few months after my grandma’s funeral, I went back to my grandparents’ house. It smelt the same. My grandma was everywhere, even though she was absent. I felt like I would turn a corner and find her there—but she never was.
No matter how many rooms I went into she didn’t appear.
Two years later, my father is back in England and we’re sitting on her gazebo absorbing the sun like lizards.
He tells me that we’ve been given the task of sorting out Grandma. Apparently Grandad popped in to pick her up from the funeral director on his way to get some shopping one day a couple of months after the funeral. She’s been in a plastic bag in a cardboard box in the bedroom cupboard ever since. I didn’t know this, and splutter with laughter. My dad laughs too.
It is now our task to get Grandad to do something with her. In her will she states she wants to go in the local graveyard, but Grandad doesn’t like it there. I ask if it matters. Death is for the living, death rituals are for the grieving.
“She’s dead. She won’t care.”
We decide to leave her in a box in the cupboard. Grandad will leave her when he is ready.
We start talking about where we want to be, just so we know. Dad and his wife want to be on the block under skyscraper karri trees, down a roughly-hewn track through thick undergrowth that will disappear without them.
“Can you take me home?” I ask, my voice cracking. England is so fucking green, and I can’t stand to be in earth that goes barren for half the year.
So I will be taken home in a cardboard box in a plastic bag and scattered in the dry heat.
In the sunshine.