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Custom Finish?

Posted by Steven Palmer on August 1, 2014

    “There will be no lasting peace either in the heart of individuals or in social customs until death is outlawed.”    –Albert Camus

    When conqueror Genghis Khan, on one of his campaigns, fell off his horse and died, or died and fell off his horse, he had discussed his burial plans in advance. He knew where he wanted to be buried; however the problem was he was a long way from that spot. His grave was to be a secret. His entourage decided to build a tomb along the way. Secrecy being paramount, any unlucky soul within eyesight of the funeral procession was killed to ensure secrecy. When a proper place for the tomb was selected, the 2,000 slaves made it as respectful but hidden as they were able. Khan’s remains were joined by the now killed slaves as they knew the secret. All of those who attended the entombment (monks, government ministers, etc.) were also killed. The 800 soldiers doing that killing were also killed as they knew where the grave was. Who dispatched these poor souls is not known but the secrecy worked and Khan’s grave is still unknown.
    This bizarre ending is one of the many told in Funerals to Die For by Kathy Benjamin (Adams Media, 2013). Cultural committals, cremations and cockamamie customs are told in a humorous and not always respectable manner. I will not vouch for the accuracy of any of these traditions but I will share some of the most peculiar.
    Having your relatives for dinner has a whole new meaning among the Whari, an indigenous Brazilian tribe that are reported to eat their own tribal members. This is not a buffet but a select order of those to do the eating. When a member dies, his family from a wide area is notified. It may take a while for their arrival; the deceased may be well on its way to decomposition. The most distant relatives are invited to dine and the immediate family excused from this task. The very young and the very old are given the select pieces such as liver and brains. The other relatives are left to the other roasted parts. The purpose is to have the deceased continue on within (really in) his family. Earlier tribes in Australia also dined on their deceased before the government forbade it. One such feast gave all diners Kuru, a disease similar to Mad Cow Disease, the incurable Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It quickly spread through the tribe. I’ll stick to the tuna casserole at the reception thank you.
    In a similar style of mourning when the people of the Buguias, located in the Philippines have a death, the departed is brought out in front of his home and tied sitting up in a chair. Easier to do earlier, tough to keep them that way as nature takes its toll. All family and villagers are invited to a barbeque where food and drink abound and music may entertain the deceased. When the meat finally runs out then the “host” is removed from his chair and buried. If relatives dream that the deceased is not happy in the spot they selected, he is disinterred and a whole new party is begun before a reburial. There has to be a better reason to party.
    Suttee or sati is the centuries old custom in India where a widow would “voluntarily” throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. This would cleanse the dead man’s sins. Reportedly some wives were drugged, some gave their sacrifice willingly at knifepoint. Women were limited citizens in society and without a husband were better off dead in some of that culture’s eyes. Other reasons may have been that it prevented the usually much younger widow from taking the husband’s estate and running off with someone closer to her age. This practice was banned by the British inhabiting government in 1929 and India itself banned it as late as 1987.
    To say funerals are for the birds was true to some regions of ancient Tibet. “Sky burials” were available to the family of some means allowing a proper spot to be found. The deceased, sans clothes was placed on a flat rock. A specially trained Buddhist monk would come dismember the deceased with sacred ritual that also made the departed very attractive to vultures. It was a compliment if these birds of prey found the relative tasty. At least they spared the relatives the task of consuming them.
    Viking funerals of movie lore are a farce, according to this study of customs. The sensible explanation is that even if you filled the Viking vessel with flammables and sent it to sea and shot the flaming arrow in you would still end up with a half burned corpse that would wash ashore in a few days.
    William the Conqueror had a dignified send off. While in France keeping the peace, his horse bucked, threw the large monarch into the horn of the saddle, internal organs were ruptured and death came a little later. The decision was made to bury him in France but his sons had fled the scene to claim their share of the estate before the funeral. Bishops in attendance asked that all who had grudges forgive William. One mourner said that William had stolen land from his father and if they wanted William interred there they better buy it. A pause in services and quick collection purchased the land. Mother Nature was not being kind to the conqueror’s corpse and the attendants’ had a hard time in closing the casket with the bloated body. A little too much pressure was applied; William’s torso burst and the insides were now on the outside. The unpleasantness quickened the ceremony and the burial was completed. William did not rest in peace and was disinterred for examination and identification and later he was disturbed again in 1500s by a mob who scattered his remains. A femur was found and was buried in ceremony in what is known as his grave in France.
    Tonga King Topou V died in March 2012. 1,500 attendants dressed in black shirts and grass skirts carried the ruler’s body. The royal undertakers Nima Tapu, who were usually Maori or Samoans tend to the body. The problem arose that tradition dictates the hands that touched the King must be cut off. Being reasonable people in the modern era, it was decided that the Nima Tapu members that touched the King could not use their hands for 100 days. Sounds easy but try answering the call of nature without using your hands. Thank goodness for modern thinking culturists or the careers for these mortuary workers would have been shortened.
    We remember the coins on the eyes of the deceased. Some cultures believed that the deceased was always looking for some company on the journey to the beyond so you did not want to look into the eyes of the departed, hence the coins.
    Boot Hill, the town cemetery in many parts of the West, was named for those who died “with their boots on.” First was in Tombstone, Arizona and copied by many small towns in the growing West. The most famous tombstone was that of Lester Moore. Moore was a Wells Fargo clerk and was dealing with a complaint by Hank Dustan about a damaged package. They decided to settle their dispute in the street the Western way. Dustan squeezed off four shots hitting Moore but Moore also mortally wounded Dustan. Moore was buried under that famous inscription that still draws many tourists.
Here lies Lester Moore
Four slugs from a .44
No Les
No Moore

    “Customs tell a man who he is, where he belongs, what he must do. Better illogical customs than none; men cannot live together without them.”     –Robert A. Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy


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