Kemo D. (kemo_d7) wrote,
Kemo D.

Human Nature

Why we want their bodies back

As humans have evolved, they've learned there are good reasons not to bury an empty coffin. The desire for tangible proof of the death of someone we know or love is a natural human impulse. But often that desire extends well beyond a purely rational need for certainty. 

In circumstances where there is not the remotest chance that someone is still alive, we still expend great energy and often put other lives on the line in order to retrieve the dead.

The quest to get the body back is a drama played out in an endless variety of settings. In
Chile, for instance, where civilians of the wrong opinion vanished during the murderous reign of Augusto Pinochet decades ago, the now-elderly mothers of the disappeared still gather to demand: "Give us even a single bone of our children." Sometimes the demand for remains crosses national or cultural boundaries and is passed down from generation to generation.


It is tempting to assume that such a widespread obsession with retrieving bodily remains is rooted in a deep-seated human need to ritualistically put the dead to rest in a respectful manner: In the words of an old blues song, "See that my grave's kept clean." But, in fact, death rituals vary dramatically from culture to culture. While most societies traditionally bury or cremate their dead, others such as the Masai in East Africa discard corpses for scavengers. And even among cultures that bury their dead, the sense of a grave as hallowed ground is not necessarily shared. As late as the 19th century in northern Europe, burial was akin to leasing an apartment: Graves were intermittently dug up and the remains discarded to make room for the next tenants. While the Western model of death involves grief and whispered respect, the Nyakyusa in Malawi have ornate funerary rituals of mocking the deceased.

Cultures even differ as to when they decide someone is good and dead. And sometimes individuals who we would consider robustly alive are treated as deceased. In traditional Haitian society, if a person does something deeply taboo, a shaman turns the miscreant into a slavelike zombie; thereafter, the community believes he inhabits the world of the dead. Conversely, some societies continue hearty, active interchanges with people who are no longer alive. In traditional Chinese society in
Singapore, younger siblings have to wait their turn to get married, so sometimes an older sibling who dies unwed is betrothed in a "ghost marriage" to someone appropriate and deceased. Even in our own culture and others that are preoccupied with retrieving the dead, with sufficient passage of time (and with the demise of the immediate kin of the deceased) the respectful act becomes just the opposite. Although we consider it a moral imperative to try to recover corpses from the Kursk, doing the same to any skeletal remains on the Titanic would be seen as inappropriately disturbing the dead.

So why do we go to extraordinary lengths to get the body back?


The most obvious reason is to make sure the person is really dead. Until the invention of the modern stethoscope about 185 years ago, determining if someone was dead or just in a coma was often difficult. The fact that some people were buried alive gave way to laws in the 17th century mandating a waiting period before burial; aristocrats stipulated in their wills that bodily insults intended to wake the not-dead, such as cutting off toes, were to be inflicted on their corpses. By the 19th century, inventors offered coffins with escape hatches. In German dead houses, which served as way stations before burial, the fingers of corpses were attached to alarm bells. Just in case.

Many nonhuman primates also take time before literally letting go of their dead. This is something that I have observed in my own studies of baboons. An infant dies, and rather than discarding the body, the mother carries it around for days afterward. Sociobiologists argue that there is an evolutionary reason for such behavior: Females who have the occasional offspring revive from a coma pass on more copies of their genes.


Once we were kids who believed enough in our immortality that we would hitch rides with strangers. Now we flaunt the same irrationality by cheating on our low-cholesterol diets. Once we had not yet learned that life brings tragedies beyond control. Now we wonder how we can spare our own children from that knowledge. Once we lost two friends and could only imagine florid, violent sins of commission. Now, instead, we have a doughy, middle-aged lesson about the toxic consequences of quiet sins of omission and indifference.

Sometimes, when you get the body back, or at least find out the whole story, you learn something critical about the nature of the living and of those who knew all along what happened. 

Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7)

Tags: history, psychology
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