Here is a selection of trivia from Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory:
In the first century CE, the Romans built tall cremation pyres from pine logs. The uncoffined corpse was laid atop the pyre and set ablaze. After the cremation ended, the mourners collected the bones, hand-washed them in milk, and placed them in urns.
During kotsuage (“the gathering of the bones”) the mourners gather around the cremation machine when the bones are pulled out of the chamber. The bones are laid on a table and the family members come forward with long chopsticks to pick them up and transfer them into the urn. The family first plucks the bones of the feet, working their way up toward the head, so that the deceased person can walk into eternity upright.
In the late 1800s, the citizens of Paris would come to the morgue by the thousands each day to view the bodies of the unidentified dead. Spectators lined up for hours to get in as vendors sold them fruit, pastries, and toys. When they reached the front of the line, they would be ushered into an exhibit room, where the corpses were laid out on slabs behind a large glass window. Vanessa Schwartz, scholar of fin-de-siècle Paris, called the Paris morgue “a spectacle of the real.”
High in the mountains of Tibet, where the ground is too rocky for burial and trees too scarce to provide wood for cremation pyres, Tibetans have developed another method of dealing with their dead. A professional rogyapa, or body breaker, slices the flesh off the corpse and grinds the remaining bones with barley flour and yak butter. The body is laid out on a high, flat rock to be eaten by vultures. The birds swoop in, carrying the body in all different directions, up into the sky. It is a generous way to be disposed of, the leftover flesh nourishing other animals.
The medieval church courtyard turned cemetery was the place to see and be seen. It was the centre of town life, a place of socialization and commerce. Vendors sold beer and wine to the crowds and installed communal ovens to bake fresh bread. Young lovers took nightly strolls; speeches were made to gathered crowds. The Council of Rouen in 1231 banned dancing in the cemetery or in the church, under pain of excommunication. To require such a forceful ban, it must have been a popular pastime. The cemetery was the venue where the living and the dead mingled in social harmony.
In Muslim communities, it is considered a “meritorious deed” to wash and shroud the dead in a ritual washing known as Ghusl. The person who performs the Ghusl is chosen by the dying man or woman themselves. Men are washed by men and women are washed by women. Selection is an honour and a sacred obligation to fulfil.
In 1961, a paper in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology laid out the seven reasons humans fear dying:
- My death would cause grief to my relatives and friends.
- All my plans and projects would come to an end.
- The process of dying might be painful.
- I could no longer have any experiences.
- I would no longer be able to care for my dependents.
- I am afraid of what might happen to me if there is a life after death.
- I am afraid of what might happen to my body after death.