Tag Archives: corpse

The Grisly Quest For Body Parts

I’m working on a story that involves research into some ancient Christian practices. And I’m reminded yet again about the weird human penchant for bones.  When people die we either bury them in dirt or burn them. Some places like Cuba and New Orleans, which have little dirt due to high water tables, bury their people in above ground caskets where there is less chance of a body floating away or unpleasantly moldering in a hot climate. Most cultures inter their dead one way or another.

But along with the ritualistic aspects of burying the dead comes the adoration, idolizing and power of those people  who gained fame and notoriety.  Ancient Celts would save the heads of their enemies, as an honor to the fighter and for the power that would be imbued to them. Drinking from skull cups (kapala) has been done as part of ritual, to honor the defeated person, or for power to pass onto the drinker in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, Celtic, Chinese, Scythian, Rus, Bulgarian, Uzbek and even Lord Byron. Shrunken heads of the Amazon also fall into this except the skull bone was removed.

People have a grisly fascination with that which supports us but yet remains invisible until we die. Bones. The early Christian church was no slacker in this regard. Any body part of a sainted individual was ready for demolition and salvation in a reliquary. Finger bones, skulls, leg bones, you name it. If it could be found and sanctified the churches and monasteries would hang on to such a reliquary to make each of them special. Never mind that the vaunted saint might not rest easy when their bones were scattered far and wide. Funny that we’re very touchy about our dead getting proper rites and their remains being undistrubed…unless their saints. Then it’s a wholesale grabfest for every pious group.

Of course any place that boasted of owning the used hanky, holey sock, or toothpick of a saint would have a chance of getting more believers to view the grisly religious tourist attractions. Of course this wasn’t just the Christian religion, with the Vatican being the biggest repository of weird sideshow bits of dead people. Buddhists often used the skull cup and other beliefs have their body parts too.

Of all the prized possessions it seems people have sought the head most of all. Coinciding with this research I’m doing CBC was talking about the stolen heads of famous musicians like Beethoven and Haydn. It was a pretty popular sport in the 1800s to dig up a grave and grab the head of a famous poet or composer. In some cases the macabre quest was for science. What had made these people so great? In some cases it was for grisly rewards. Own the head of Marie Antoinette…yours for $100,000. And in some cases it was for that nebulous religious aura. I touched the finger bone of St. Peter and therefore I’m blessed, I’m closer to heaven, I will get that X that I prayed for.

Whatever the reason, we are similarly repulsed and drawn to aspects of the dead. Don’t look at a corpse, and  bury the bones, but oh wait if it’s got some power, well then I will touch it, look at it, revere it. Humans are very odd, at one point fearing everything to do with death and the dead and at the other end, eternally pulled to and fascinated by it. Look at vampire fiction. There is a crossover with the dead and the living; and zombies, though not as sexy as vampires, are definitely gaining mainstream time but usually in  a more campy way. But in the true essence of humanity our natures our dichotomized by our logic and our beliefs and I’m sure in the future we’ll continue to see body parts revered in some way or another.

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Traveling in India: Removing the Mask

Years ago, I traveled in India for two months. The first month was in Meghalaya, a Himalayan tribal state in the northeast corner of India. I was there with my friend, a native Khasi of Meghalaya. (I’ll talk about Meghalaya some other time.) The second month I set out on my own, traveling to India and Nepal.

The hard journey began almost immediately. Because the Meghalayans were fighting with the Assamese (and because the plane out of Meghalaya, Vayudoot Airlines, was too scary to fly again) I had to take a bus into neighboring Assam. It was a very long, hot bus ride where we passed a crowd on the road standing near the stiffening corpse of man who had been hit by a car (I presume) and was bloating in the hot sun.

Hours later I arrived at the airport where of course the plane ran on Indian time and was over three-hours late. I had left in the morning but by the time I got into Calcutta, not that far really, it was early evening. I had a Lonely Planet guide and used it to find quality and affordable hotels. Except they were all full. I tried several places, each less reputable than the last, until I finally found a place. It was dirty, there were so many cockroaches that I slept with the lights on and the water sprayed from the tap at a 45 degree angle. I was completely dehydrated by the time I got into this hotel and asked the staff for some boiled water. They brought it and it was suspiciously lukewarm. I added iodine (this was before they had perfected cheap and easy to carry water purification kits or tablets) but I had to drink it.

Sure enough, three days later began the fall into dysentery and three weeks of traveling to go. Skipping forward, I was back in Delhi and sick as a dog, puking or hanging my butt over a toilet. I spent a lot of my time laying in bed in the hostel, too sick to eat and tired. But I decided one day to go to the Red Fort I believe. It’s been a while and it may have been some other edifice.

Having now been in India long enough to know you had to ask specific questions and bargain, I made a deal with a motorized rickshaw driver (there were bicycle and foot rickshaws as well). We agreed on the price and I said, “That’s for both ways, right?”  He agreed, but when he dropped me off at the fort he asked, “How long are you going to be?” I shrugged lethargically and said maybe a couple of hours or so. And off I went.

You walk a gamut of merchants at the entry of the place and I was looking in this one shop when this merchant reached out and grabbed my breast. I was too sick and shocked to do more than look and walk away. I should have slugged him. But I saw the fort, took pictures and left a couple of hours later. When I get outside there is my rickshaw driver and he starts yelling at me about the length of time. We argued as I said this is what we had agreed to. I had told him I didn’t know for sure how long I would be, etc. etc. However, there were about another ten drivers standing around all staring at me, arguing in both languages. I felt intimidated by the pressure so pulled out half the fee for the one-way trip and threw it at the guy, stalking off to find a bicycle rickshaw driver.

I agreed to a price with him and got in, completely dissolute by the experience. I didn’t look at anything and just sat there in a distant haze. Only motorized vehicles were allowed around Connaught Place, the giant traffic circle (with many lanes from many directions) in New Delhi.  Around the outer circle were stations for the other rickshaw drivers to drop off their clients. I paid and despondently got  out of the rickshaw. As I trudged away I heard, “Mems’ib, mems’ib.” I turned back and there was the original rickshaw driver with the police.

At that point I didn’t think about the corrupt Indian system and paying baksheesh or about the lies this guy had told. I freaked out. I started screaming at all three of them, walking up with my wrists together saying, go ahead take me away. You’re trying to keep me here and who knows what other delirium was going on. Keep in mind that I was very sick and had been traveling with an overloaded backpack and a bag and a carpet (another long story) for three weeks. I was way beyond my normal comfort zone. I cried and screamed and then pulled all of the cash out of my wallet, threw it at the men and then went and sat on a wall and cried. Actually I bawled.

At one point the rickshaw driver came back and put my change beside me. I don’t know if he had an attack of conscience or if the police kept him honest. I didn’t care. I cried and cried and have no idea how long I sat there. At one point I heard a timid, “Mems’ib,” again. When I looked up there were about six men looking at me, concerned. One asked, “What is wrong?”

I cried out something like, “nothing,you’re country is trying to keep me here,” etc. I was at the end of two months and heartily tired of trying to fend on my own which had not been easy in many ways. Eventually, I wandered back to the hostel where I was staying. Before I got there a beggar came up and touched my arm, looking up at me with wide eyes. This was a child of maybe 12. Now I had already been told by my friend, and observed, that no one touches another in public in India. Actually no man will touch a woman and strangers do not touch. She had said if someone touches you, it’s a sign of disrespect. After the illness, the breast grabbing, the fight with the rickshaw driver, the police and my general lack of coping by this point, I sobbed at this poor beggar, “Oh just go die, it’s easier.”

Yes, I told a beggar to die, because at that point it’s what I wanted to do. It was perhaps the ugliest aspect of my personality and was one aspect of a life-changing journey. Before I went to India, I had this group of friends and that group of friends. I had the calm me, the conservative me, the partying me, the studious me, etc., and very few saw all of me. Like many people in our culture, I had my masques for different occasions.

Between the dysentery, the overloaded packs and the very different culture of India and their way of  dealing with time and communication, I ran out of coping mechanisms. I was stripped down to my essential self. When I returned to Canada and was at some point telling  a friend about my journey, she said, “Yeah, you’re more accessible now.” After that, everyone pretty much got the same me, amalgamated for good or ill, with fewer masques.

India was a very hard journey into my self, where I learned many valuable lessons about culture, environment, people and life. The biggest lesson was about me. I would still recommend that everyone travel to a third world country if the can. It is an eye opener and truly shows many of us how privileged we are where even conservation can be a luxury. But those are tales for another time.

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