CULTS OF THE DEAD

My family is atheist, I think I can define myself as agnostic, but I really appreciate Gnosticism (as much as it might seem a literal inconsistency), especially the Islamic one. After all, agnosticism can also oscillate between rigour and laxity. I undoubtedly prefer the latter, in which I can even see a certain Darwinism, with the emphasis that some currents place on adaptation. Maybe that’s why funerals always said something to me. I experienced them with dark boredom as a child, with despair during the most religious phase of my life – pre-adolescence -, with detachment before my grandmother’s death and with a certain spirituality after that unfortunate, but natural event.

Leaving Napoleonic rationalism regarding cemeteries, thanks to Ugo Foscolo (who taught me this with Dei Sepolcri, a focus on the importance of the tombs as a source of inspiration) I started considering tombs and funeral monuments as historical elements. History, however, as we know, is not made up of only objects, which are nothing but its concretization, but also of thoughts, which therefore give life to actions. The funerals are basically actions that are part of a set of highly variable customs, which are part of a larger system, which can continue for decades or more, what is commonly called the cult of the dead, which in the world has an infinity of variations, but also of similarities. Its origin is lost with the origin of man or almost.

Wikipedia, Memorial of Foscolo in London, tomb of the poet from 1827 to 1871

It might be wrong to speak of the ancient Egyptians as the first people with a real religious cult, also related to the deceased. In 100,000 BC, some practices associated with the dead were already put in place as in the case of the remains of 15 bodies found in the cave of Qafzeh, Palestine in the 30s. Some of them were even found with deer horns in their hands. There’s also the case of the cave in the famous town of Neanderthal, in Germany. The cult of the dead is present in almost all religions and, according to some historians, it would even be their origin (together with hunting and art). It manifests itself in celebrations, rituals, beliefs, duration and cadence, depending on the culture it expresses. There are therefore common points and differences.

COMMON POINTS

Wherever, even in the past, the cult of the dead involves a holiday. These celebrations almost always take place at a specific time of the year (even just one day), which often falls during the harvest season or another important period of the year. For the most ancient traditions, the dead come back to life, in the more modern ones or in any case posthumous, it may not be so (as the case of Christianity). If the dead come back to life, albeit temporarily, they need the things of the living, especially food (as in is the case of the silicernium and the dinner novendialis in Ancient Rome and also of the recurring banquets in some Russian cemeteries), objects (for the happiness of the tomb robbers) and clothes (according to the rites of the main monotheistic religions the dead are buried dressed, but it is not guaranteed). Rituals even get to involve the bodies in the celebrations. The dead are almost always invited to return to their world at the end of the celebration. There are also common points which are not global, but the cover (or covered) several kilometres away. The commemoration of the deceased in the ancient Iranian fell around the end of the year (rather a common occasion) and provided for the supply of food and clothing to the spirits, which happened more or less with Roman paganism, which moved the celebrations to the tombs, while the ancient Greeks even celebrated with sex, but they also celebrated with food. The care of the dead is also extremely widespread. In many cultures the dead are washed, covered, decorated, sometimes perfumed and wrapped in precious fabrics. This, in reality, occurs in the practice of most western countries, where the dead are fully covered, washed and even made up. The visit to the deceased is also practically a global constant, especially in the days following the tragic event. Funeral rites always bring together the group in which death has created a void, whether it is a family, an entire urban centre or a group of friends. Everywhere they allow the expression and the overcoming of pain, also in secular form, through memory, communion, but also very precise rituals, which allow the extreme greeting. The deceased will then presumably be remembered in the years to come, both with celebrations on the occasion of the anniversary of his death and with actual ritual exhumations. We begin to deal with the differences.

THE DIFFERENCES

Already in the common parts, as inevitable it was, some differences have emerged, obviously, the opposite will also happen. In Italy, for the commemoration of all the deceased, which takes place on November 2nd, there are no preparatory rituals, but various cultures require invitations and evocations, and also more daily actions such as fasting and cleaning. Often provisions are prepared that must house the deceased, more or less physically, but this also applies to cemeteries and tombs. The deceased are also subjected to very different treatments. The burial, which can take place in the ground, in marble, in concrete, in natural ravines and even in water, is not even definitive or constant, as in the case of the Indonesian Torajan people, who do not consider death the end of physical life and exhume their dead people, wash them, dress them in new clothes and then pose with them to take family portraits, during the emotional Ma’nene festival, and let’s not forget the mummification, now rare, but in the past very widespread, in space and in the time. In some cases the body is instead cremated, an ancient tradition and almost ubiquitous in the past, for centuries widespread in India, but now quite common also in the West. Add-in, in the case of the Tibetan jhator, the body is fed to the vultures after being skinned, this is an act of generosity, becoming food, but it also compensates for the difficulty of digging tombs or creating mounds in an extremely rocky place. But even the places of deposition themselves may be different. If the French Revolution has already moved the limits outside the cities, even more, remarkable variations, come to Merina of Madagascar, who bury their loved ones in the family territories, or to some Melanesia traditions (especially in the past), the dead are buried in the shadow of the Banians, whose aerial roots end up surrounding the bodies creating small arboreal cemeteries. In conclusion, it is true that many societies adapt colours for mourning, it is also true that these use additions: in Christianity black is the typical colour (but purple also has a similar meaning), while for Islam and Hinduism, but also in the Far East, this colour is white.

Wikipedia, The Ma’nene Ritual in Tana Toraja

Net, therefore, of the differences, the cult of the dead aims to face the loss of a loved one. The show must go on, anywhere in the world. Net of the common points, however, the differences show us how environment and culture influence the ways in which people face and process their mourning. All this, however, is united by an ancestral need to express one’s piety towards the dead, hoping that earthly death is not eternal. Piety is expressed with pain, which is gradually replaced by memory, itself part of life after death. The cult of the dead proper, organized and varied, characterizes Homo sapiens, differentiating it from all other species. The cult of the dead does not stop, however, from loved ones to others, but also extends to more or less historical characters, able to influence our lives. This is how the cult of the dead merges with the person’s cult, sometimes giving rise to religions, movements or even just admiration for certain personal heroes. The most current case is probably that of Dr Li Wenliang, the Chinese ophthalmologist who was among the first to report the danger and existence of what we now call COVID-19. After being accused of alarmism and being interrogated by the police, on February 6 he died of Coronavirus. On April 2 his figure was rehabilitated to that of national hero and currently on Weibo, Chinese social network, thousands of social users are leaving messages in his honour, or more simply greetings, food offerings through
emojis and brief information on the personal lives of commentators or the weather. This is how the cult of the dead arises not only to elaborate mourning but also to take refuge in a world in crisis.

M E M O R I a L_paint, Dr Li Wenliang

All this to emphasize, once again, that the extremely intricate system is the one created by Homo sapiens in hundreds of thousands of years, a world so complex that we do not even know in full, but which, at least for now, has always managed to make us find a way out, a future.

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