Digging Up the Dead

I suppose that Remembrance Day set me thinking about digging up the dead; I do not mean I was thinking about Actually digging up the dead, but the way in which people from time to time dig up the dead. This has been one of those ideas that has been in my mind and now is the time to bring the idea into shape.

We revere the dead, perhaps rightly so. Some cultures worship their ancestors; most cultures are at least grateful to their ancestors, probably because our forebears have been essential links in the chain of life that has brought every culture into being and every person into existence.

Some cultures feel it right to burn their dead; Hindus do this and the cremation of the dead by the shores of sacred rivers is a feature of their religion. These dead corpses, burnt over a long period are reduced to ashes which are scattered upon the waters. Those wishing to honour the dead see the corpse gradually burn into something which cannot be analysed, dug up or discovered. For them this is the end, the final journey in flames that consume wood flesh and bone. The ashes are cast into waters from which they can never be retrieved.

Other cultures leave the dead on high structures to be consumed by birds and animals, leaving only bones which slowly wither away. This is the way that some respect their dead.

Other cultures, and particularly the culture in which I was brought up, require the burial of the dead. Christians and Jews if they believe (for some do not believe) are taught that humanity was made from clay, or earth or soil and must return to the earth, the mother of their creation, from whence they sprung when life as we understand it exists no more.

Having carefully buried the dead we then honour them in many small ways. Perhaps we may erect a small headstone or monument at the burial place, or perhaps leave flowers occasionally as a sign of our love and affection for those who no longer live with us in ways that we understand living. Our respect particularly shows itself for the dead of those killed In battle. These are the graves that we tend the best and for the longest periods of time; the massive cemeteries of the dead of the world wars of the last century are kept, at some expense, in a state of tender pristine sadness; scrubbed crosses and monuments, orderly lines, as befits soldiers, and guided tours to visit the repose of the dead.

It is though having wronged the bodies of those who once lived by arranging their deaths we try to amend our wrongs by honouring their corpses.

If the person who died did so at sea in a warship, then the warship is usually designated as a war grave .

Our cultures refuse to admit the desecration of any grave, whether at sea or in land. We must not offend the dead, or those related to the dead, or those who are grateful to the dead, by digging up their bones except for the most important reasons. We may be permitted to dig up the dead to establish why they died, to catch a murderer or for some other good reason and there is due legal authority and proper solemn respect in the processes of exhumation and re-interment.

But this respect for the dead diminishes as time passes. If we discover ancient remains we may disturb them to satisfy our curiosity. The bones of kings and commoners are displayed in many museums, because the curiosity overcomes the respect that we would accord more recent bones. A mummified corpse of a Pharaoh may be displayed as a circus curiosity and examined to discover some relatively unimportant fact or two about the life and death of the person who once wielded the power of life and death overt his subjects. On Armistice Day the BBC announces the rituals honouring the dead and in the same bulletin excitedly reported that the grave of a baby who died in Roman times would be opened and examined, layer by layer. Such is our attitude to death; time cures us of any reverence to those who died centuries ago. It is perfectly normal to dig up the remains of a child who died less than two millennia ago.

We may not treat the embalmed corpse of a leader or soldier who died half a century ago in this way. We just exhibit the graves and tombs of those who have recently died, not the remains of the dead, but as ages pass so the remains become less sacred and society deems they lose their special status as objects of reverence. The process that was regarded as a committal to the earth turned out, as a result of the intervention of archaeology, to be not as committed as was thought at the time of burial. The two paces of earth that was the home and final resting place of the buried became such that the dead, in some cases no longer possessed even those small places.

But buried or net eventually time will reduce even the places of repose of the greatest kings and wealthiest person into elements which are differently arranged from those entombed.

A man who apparently wished to curse those who disturbed his bones wrote “To what bases uses may we return, Horatio? Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till it find it stopping a bung hole?”. The end may be silence but that does not prevent the rearrangement of our atoms into different forms, even though it may take longer than we can ever imagine.

Time wins, defeating even death.

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