There’s a great old Twilight Zone episode (“Elegy”) in which future astronauts crash land on an asteroid that seems very much like earth. They look for help in a town—only to find all the people frozen in different tableaus: an unattractive woman winning a beauty contest, a man celebrating his election as mayor, etc.
They soon find out that the people aren’t frozen in time, as they suspected. Most of the “people” are dummies, but a few are preserved cadavers, posed for eternity “reliving” a favorite moment or a fulfilling a life’s dream. In other words, the asteroid is really a cemetery.
Elegy was far-fetched in the ’60s when the show was produced. No more. A recent front page story in the New York Time reported on a new funeral fad during which the recently deceased are posed as if still alive and engaged in a favorite activity. From the story:
The calls started coming in to the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home during its June 12 viewing for Miriam Burbank, who died at 53 and spent her service sitting at a table amid miniature New Orleans Saints helmets, with a can of Busch beer at one hand and a menthol cigarette between her fingers, just as she had spent a good number of her living days .
Other such “living” funerals have included a paramedic displayed “driving” his ambulance, a man dressed for his wake like Che Guevara, and a boxer in the ring waiting for the fight to begin.
Those who don’t want burial but wish to dispose of their remains without contributing to global warming through cremation now in many places can have their remains liquefied and poured in the sewer. From the BBC story about a liquefaction machine now approved for use in Florida:
The system works by submerging the body in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide which is pressurised to 10 atmospheres and heated to 180C for between two-and-a-half and three hours. Body tissue is dissolved and the liquid poured into the municipal water system.
All but bone residue becomes one with sewage. That’s a pretty strong symbolic statement that we are ultimately nothing more than the sum of our chemistry.
I can’t help but compare these novel last arrangements with the traditional Eastern Orthodox funeral of a beloved Archimandrite and monastery abbot in which I was honored to participate as a sub deacon last Saturday. Talk about green! Fr. Theodor’s unembalmed body—no attempt to make him appear “lifelike—was buried in a simple wooden coffin, both he and it destined to become one with the elements in the most natural way possible.
More to the point, his was a real funeral in the old style—open casket, more than four hours of prayer and scripture reading, including the Divine Liturgy. (Hey, we’re Orthodox! We do nothing “short.”).
Unlike many “life celebrations” we see today, the primary focus wasn’t on how Fr. Theodor lived—although, the graveside eulogies certainly paid tribute to his many good works—but rather, the meditations remained fixed throughout on his eternal future. Indeed, that is why his, like all Orthodox funerals, concluded with the dirge hymn “Memory Eternal” as the presiding priest recited the absolution for the dead, consigning “all those things which have proceeded from the weakness of his mortal nature . . . to oblivion.”
This is meant as an observation, not a judgment: As I read the Times story, I was struck by the differences between that old—many would say, archaic—Orthodox way and how final dispositions are increasingly conducted today, divergent approaches to death that also illustrate, I think, contrasting, perhaps incompatible, world views about the meaning and purpose of life.
More, funerals like Archimandrite Theodor’s concentrate on the deceased’s eternal future because participants have faith that he still lives! (O’ Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?) In contrast, by focusing primarily on the deceased’s now-past life by posing the body as if still so engaged or by making a political statement in how the body is handled, more contemporary dispositions attempt to deflect the ultimate reality of human mortality. The dead are gone forever, such approaches imply, but at least we can act as if they are still alive.