Once more lightly about the dead


People seem to have an aversion towards graves. Sometimes greed for buried riches overwhelms that aversion; but generally speaking people don’t want to go looking for dead people.

Greed motivates some of us; so does curiosity. The pharaohs of Egypt didn’t get to sleep in peace; after the grave-robbers had, ahem, unearthed the subject, we were curious in a base and glorious way, because we knew so little about those thousands of years of the double crown and the royal hawk. (Well, glory can be another motive, all the way from “I happen to be the virile man that excavated the tomb of Seti the Shostak, you unwed lady with huge tracts of land!” to “You don’t think I’m tough? Okay, get a shovel, we’re going to the graveyard to visit my gramma.”)

Now, then, if you want to keep something safe — put it in a grave and don’t tell anybody. Monuments are defaced, histories erased, legends altered; but amidst death, certain things can live forever. (As quoth in ye Nekro Noma Eikon of ye Mad Arabb Abd-ul-al-Azreed…)

Not telling anybody about your grave is obviously difficult if you’re a pharaoh; people are sort of on the lookout for the spot where you’ll lay down to rest. But, nowadays, common people are buried all the time. Wouldn’t it be a splendidly morbid idea to go down with our equivalent of the tomb paintings — say a set of aluminium plates that detail our recent history from the Fall of A-Dolfu to the rise of the Ge-Or Ge-Pushu the Lesser? (And a thousand years later, a schism in the Mormon Church! Newly decrypted revelations deciphered from the Re-reformed Egyptian of the Silver Plates!)

That infoful burial would take more than a spot of planning, though. Grave plots aren’t for forever nowadays; and the tending of graves is a tad undignified. Not on the level of having a hut on the yard grounds for all the bones that the seasons throw up, like in the old days; but still. Graves shouldn’t have a pit where the coffin lies; but as the coffin rots a hole forms and the ground trickles down. Then the boneyard caretaker comes, cuts away the turf, shovels earth in the hole, and goes over it a couple of times with a sort of a plate-ended pneumatic drill. The result is a nice smooth plot, but one really doesn’t want to see what’s happened to the one beneath. (Not so in the old days; the English word “graveyard” meant originally “a garden of pits”.)

And then there’s the possibility that a helpful governmental authority decides the stones take up too much space, and presto! your skull’s in the Catacombs of Paris along with the contents of most of Paris’s cemeteries until 1786. (And really, what kind of an idea is keeping all our dead in one part of the town? Really? Is there such commemorative value in the last generation of our cells?)

Even if a wholesale resurrection like that doesn’t happen, grave plots are not eternal. It would make cemeteries kind of big and expensive to maintain after a while. Unless you found a real big piece of land, filled it starting from one end, and maintained, clipped and prettified only the fifty most recent years. Beyond that, let it all slowly become a jungle, let trees grow and eat their fill and let our old ones return to the nature from which they came.

A nice vision, certainly. In Hong Kong, on the other hand, or so I hear, a public grave is for six years. Then you’re dug up, cremated, and handed back to the family if the family can be found.

“Did you say a package from your great-great-uncle?”

“Not, not a package from…”

What do you do with that kind of an accumulated ancestry after a couple of generations anyway? Get a small room filled with jars of dust, and hope a toddler doesn’t decide to go and taste a few? (Or an older one to hide his or her dirty magazines, cigarettes and the like in a jar only half full — ecch. “Pt… pt! Grains of sand in… pt!”)

I think the grave plots in Finnish cemeteries — the Lutheran ones, though everyone’s welcome, even atheists (that’s ecumenicism!) — are for 25 years or so; also free, if you’re local. Outsiders obviously have to pay, and may anyway get a “gag grave” while the locals laugh into their beers. (Er, no.) After the quarter-century, you can renew, if you want to; if not, in a couple of years (with a minimum of four) there’ll be a new tenant in. Used to be the plots were eternal; then for fifty years; now fifty years after that 25 years is the general rule. The matter’s brought to the family’s attention with some kind of a placard at the site. (“Your lease ends X.X.20XX. Please move out before that. Clean the site after you…”) One somewhat representative list of prices said: 25 years for a local, free; 25 years for an outsider, 350 euros; 50 years for a local, 350 euros.

How much is 50 years for an outsider, the list didn’t say; maybe he or she will be considered a local by then.

I wonder if, after those 25 or 50 years, the exhumed Finns get cremated and shelved somewhere. Of the ten or so parish websites I went through, not one said a thing about that. I don’t think they can put the new tenant atop the previous one; you’d have a coffin pyramid in a few generations. And doesn’t seem very practical to make the pit deeper and pad it with the previous guy; see the previous about how the coffin might be all rotten and shattered. Ideally, I think, a cemetery of this kind should have a hidden cellar under it, under the whole cemetery; you could hit a lever, and the previous occupant would ratchet down one notch to give way to the next one. Then eventually you could take the lowermost and compact him or her somehow. (Egh, this sudden image of an immense cube of dead people, each pressed to a cube of five by five by five inches, the whole standing quiet, cubical and horrible in a big vault somewhere. “What’s behind that big black door, Head Caretaker?” — “Shut up and haul the lawnmower. Let’s get back to the surface and mow some. You don’t wanna see the Cube of the Dead.”)

Now, what the above was to demonstrate was that unlike the ancient Egyptians, we can’t leave messages for the curious (and the greedy) of the future quite so easily. (Maybe a spring-loaded jack-in-the-box for the gravedigger fifty years in the future?) One could, I suppose, be buried in some private and undisturbed place, but I gather the authorities have made that difficult, too. (Probably because no-one has any idea about just what dead people are — are they people, possessions, or what? Do they have human rights? Or owners? Best to hide them away before anyone starts to ask too many questions. “‘ello. I ‘ear death ‘as visited this sad house. The deceased, may I buy ‘im?”)

(The problem is, until the legal aspect of this is cleared, there’s no hope of removing the ick associated with necrophilia. If there’s no clear idea of what dead people are, it’s pretty difficult to decide if it’s okay to have sex with them or not. Are you doing something to something that is, in some aspect, still having a part of its human rights? Or are you, em, fondling a possession that might not belong to you? Should wills include not only the division of the possessions, but the person that now owns the deceased, too? Some Green organization should start asking questions about this; call it Project MErtilizer, maybe.)

So: get a permission to be buried in a remote place. Mark the place as a grave, just to keep the less curious away. Be sneaky about the full extent of your final resting place; possibly manufacture a back room (or a lower coffin!) behind the necrotically near-hermetic seal of your own dead presence. Then be buried there, and take with you something more permanent than a book or a CD. Maybe you could find a cave and decorate it with finger paintings of the important political figures of today. (“The figure 55-B was apparently not a popular one. The bulbous cheeks of his picture were pressed to the wall with paint-coated… nether cheeks.”)

(“The nose… I never wanted to be an archaeologist anyway. I wanted to be a… what, a ‘devoted de-wooder’?”)

Then the door closes; you are buried; and a few millennia later there’s a tap at the door, and face peeking in, beholding with awe and hunger the images on the walls, and the pile of Playstation parts, and other heaps of priceless antique relics of genuine and oh-so-rare plastic, seldom seen in this world, and seldom preserved; and there are whispers in the deep silence.

“Can you see anything?”

“Yes… wonderful things!”

* * *

Note: Fact-checking this riot of necrology googled for “hautapaikka”, Finnish for a grave plot. (“I see no reason why the grave plot season should ever be forgot.”) Google’s did-you-mean service offered above the real results two from the search it thought I had meant: “hoitopaikka” or “a place of care”.

As in, a daycare.


Also from the research: an “urn” can be a biodegradable cloth bag, too. “In the bag we found some ancient letters, and the one who wrote them.” Personally, I’d fancy a big stone sphere myself: half buried in the ground, and with a Pac Man mouth open towards the nearest tombstones. Then again, I have a certain deficit of gravitas.

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