Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/October 1890/The Earthly Tabernacle

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HOW to dispose of the earthly tabernacle after the spirit departs has always been a question of importance to the living. Some of the most imposing buildings in the world have been tombs; the pyramids of Egypt, and the Taj Mahal, that "dream in marble," will occur to every one. The widely prevalent notion that the dead require the conveniences needed in life, has preserved to us many relics of nations passed away, and to the habit of lavishing ornament upon places of burial we owe some of our finest specimens of early art. Even to this day, and in this Christian country, we attach an importance to the place and the manner of burial that seems hardly consistent with our professed belief that, in the words of the poet—

"What the women lave
For the last sleep of the grave,
Is a tent that I am quitting;
Is a garment no more fitting;
Is a cage, from which at last
Like a bird my soul hath passed."

The sentiment, however, did not begin nor does it end with ns. So far back as we find traces of man upon earth, so far also do we discover signs of his treatment of the empty "cage"; and down to this year of grace 1890 the customs of humanity are as varied, as curious, and as interesting as at any period in the world's history.

In glancing over the subject, we find a noteworthy fact, that, whether the "garment no more fitting" be buried or burned, mummified, cast away, or eaten, some part of it is in almost every case preserved. With many peoples the chosen relic is the skull, which in Australia is made into a drinking-cup and kept for a memento as well as a common convenience by the next of kin; in some parts of Polynesia the skull of the "dear departed" is hung around the neck of a widow by a cord, and worn during the rest of her life; and in one of the Kingsmill Islands it is oiled, decorated with flowers, and daily presented with food.

In some races the affectionate care of the survivors extends to all the bones, which are distributed among the friends, each one of whom mourns over his one bone as if it were the whole body. Again, they are arranged in various fanciful ways: tied in a bundle and painted red, by one tribe; packed in a basket decorated with beads with the skull for a lid, by another; hung from the roof, or placed in an urn, or wrapped in.bark and carried with the tribe; or, finally, painted in stripes and dried in smoke.

Alexander the Great—as history tells us—was preserved in honey, and some of the royal Britons in wax; but the most famous embalmers, as we all know, were the Egyptians. Would they have taken so much pains, I wonder, if they had suspected they were preparing curios for the museums of impertinent nations yet unborn? Perhaps the most peculiar mode devised by man is the preservation of rich Thibetans in the form of cakes. The empty "hut," being reduced by fire to ashes, is mixed with wheat-flour and kneaded into cakes of graduated size, piled in a pyramid, and deposited in a small tower of suitable form.

Nearly all people cherish, in one way or another, the bones of their friends, and they may be conveniently divided into two great classes—those who take measures to dispose of the more perishable covering, and those who leave the work to the slower processes of Nature. Among the first named are some exceedingly strange customs: as that of the Caribs, who hang the empty case in water infested by extremely voracious little fishes, and in a few hours draw up the skeleton perfectly cleaned, paint it red, and hang it under the roof of the hut; and, perhaps even less agreeable, that not long ago in vogue among the Thibetans and others, of keeping a race of sacred dogs for the special business of quickly disposing of the cast-off human garment; and, again, the habit of the ancient Persian, who invited wild beasts to the feast, and considered their speedy acceptance a special honor; most repulsive of all, some tribes of Tartars, and the Fans, an African people, who take upon themselves the delicate task of disposal—with pleasure, it is said. With this latter group must also be placed the ancient Irish and Briton, and many South American Indians. Most interesting of the practices of "living sepulchres" is that of the Parsees of India, whose famous Towers of Silence are well-arranged buildings where the necessary work is done quickly and unseen of men, by vultures "sent by God" as they say, and the bones preserved in one great central well together.

The most widely extended fashion of forcibly resolving the body into its elements is by burning, which has been in use almost from the beginning of man's life on this planet, and is to-day rapidly growing into favor with enlightened peoples. Before the advent of Christianity it was the nearly universal practice. The Greeks and Romans, the Etrurians, Hindoos, Siamese, Germans, Scandinavians, and Saxons, and many Indian tribes of the Western world, all burned their dead with more or less ceremony, and some of them do still. Certain Australians put the body in a hollow tree, and make of that a funeral pile; the Gualala of California burn the departed to prevent their becoming grizzly bears; and the Semels, another tribe, glorify their chiefs by great pyres heaped with finery and valuables, sometimes several hundred dollars' worth.

To the cremationists must be added many peoples of Asia, among whom the fashion is still in full vigor. Some races, both savage and civilized, sacrifice the living on the funeral pile, the victims being, of course, the helpless wives and servants. Most of them are merciful enough to strangle or otherwise kill the doomed ones, but it was reserved for the "mild and gentle Hindoo" to invent and carry out the most cruel and brutal custom on record.

Of the races who let Nature do the work at her leisure, perhaps the most striking are those who wall up the door and leave the deceased in possession, since this comes the nearest we can hope to get, to taking our riches with us. Such were the ancient Peruvian Incas, whose palaces were closed and deserted with all their treasures in them, although the dried and preserved body took its place with its ancestors in the Great Temple of the Sun, and the dying Eskimo left in his snow hut, with food and light at hand, free to depart when he chose.

Unique among men is one who saves his friends trouble by burying himself. The aged Australian, feeling death approach, seeks out a hollow tree, climbs it, drops down inside, and is from that moment numbered among those who have "passed on."

Other methods are observed by the red men. Some of them are exposed to the winds of heaven, upon platforms raised on poles, as our own Dakotas, Blackfeet, Mandans, and some Sioux; others are placed in trees, like the Ahts of Vancouver's Island, where the height of the body indicates the social position of the departed; and not a few simply lay the cast-off "garment" on the bosom of its Mother Earth for the winds and storms to dispose of. In one place the body, in a canoe, is committed to the "mother of all things," the sea; and among the Hindoos it is often devoted to the sacred Ganges, lying on a platform with candles at the corners.

The largest number of civilized people, including all Christendom, bury in the earth, and, far less wise than the simple Indians whose ways we scorn, endeavor to keep as long as possible the "shell from which the pearl is gone" from its natural and much to-be-desired fate, dispersal into the elements. This custom of burial arose partly from the desire of Christians to imitate the dead Christ, who—as a Jew—was buried; partly from a belief in the resurrection of the body, and also influenced, no doubt, by the difficulty during the early persecutions of performing Christian rites at a burning which must necessarily be public.

The curious and peculiar manners connected with burial in the earth are almost numberless, and edifying in the extreme. The position differs: some sit as in life, and others are held standing, though most lie naturally. The direction of the head varies. Many of our Indians turn the face to the west, toward their "happy land"; a few turn to the east. The dead Japanese heads toward the north, for which reason the living never sleep that way, and, to avoid the chance of it, carry a compass, or mark its points on their houses. The Bongos of Africa carry the distinctions of sex into the grave, and set the faces of men to the north and of women to the south; while the Niam-Niam, a neighboring tribe, consider the east the point of honor, and the west good enough for the weaker sex. Quaintest of all is the burial of an aged clergyman, a life-long pastor in an old-fashioned village on Long Island, who is laid with his feet toward his congregation, so that on the last day, when the trump shall sound, he may rise facing them as usual, and prepared to lead them, a united flock—his flock—into the Kingdom.

Urn burial has attracted much attention since it was brought prominently before the world at the Vienna Exposition some fifteen years ago. There had been a spasmodic revival of interest in this manner of disposal of the body both in France and Italy, but nothing of importance till this exposition. A warm convert, Sir Henry Thompson, of England, wrote enthusiastic articles for the leading journals, and an earnest-controversy was kept up for some time. The result has been discussion all over Europe and America, the establishment of cremation societies, and the building of crematories, for the new method differs greatly from the ancient fashion of burning on funeral pyres. The pyre, however, is still in use in India and other parts of the world, reaching its utmost extravagance in Siam, where bodies of the royal family are burned in gorgeous and elaborate temples built of wood and inflammable materials, but adorned and decorated, painted and gilded, to exactly represent their finest architecture.

There are many things to commend cremation aside from the pretty Indian fancy that fire, the purifier, completes the deliverance of the soul from its long-time prison of flesh, and by the smoke and ascending heat forms a path on which the spirit ascends to its home in the skies, or, as one tribe has it, the soft, warm chariot conveys the released and purified soul toward the sun.

We, of course, scoff at this, but there are potent arguments that should influence even our profound wisdom—sanitary reasons, the health of the living; economical reasons, the much-reduced expense; even sentimental reasons, the possibility of preserving the remains from desecrating touch. Most powerful of all in its favor is the prevention of premature burial. All these are on the side of cremation, and against it is but one—sentiment. It seems more beautiful to lay our friends to rest, softly pillowed, shrouded in satin, inclosed in rose-wood, covered with flowers, and of anything beyond we refuse to think. We erect the imposing marble, set out the blossoming plant, and carry flowers to the spot. The cemetery appeals more strongly to the sentiment than does the crematory. I find no fault with sentiment, but I say it will more appropriately cling around an urn containing the pure ashes of what was once a loved form than about the unmentionable and unimaginable horrors covered by our flowers.

Moreover, it is to be regretted that we can not rise to the height of Christian philosophy attained by one we call "heathen," and embodied in a poem, some lines of which are quoted above, with a few more of which I will close:

"Loving friends! be wise, and dry
Straightway every weeping eye.
What ye lift upon the bier
Is not worth a single tear.

Cease your tears, and let it lie;
It was mine, it is not I."