Tag Archives: tradition

Society and Death

We have moved into a period in this culture where death is not part of life, nor the every day. Although death continues to happen to young and old, ill and hale, through accidents, disease and murder, still we talk about it in an all-encompassing way but ignore it in the intimate of the every day.

There may be somebody who will say death is not part of life and for the person who dies, life indeed is no more part of them. But for those who know someone who has died, death is very much part of their lives. It used to be that in small communities, such as mining or fishing towns, when someone died they were laid out upon the table in the family home. A table is where people break bread, eat of the earth, communicate and come together, and it is a place big enough to lay a body. Where it will be cleaned and dressed by family members. A place where a person lays in state for people to pay their last respects before being taken to the church and then buried. Funeral parlors weren’t in every small town.

Death now is the last great taboo of the Western world. When someone dies, people have no idea what to say and so say nothing at all. They’re uncomfortable with the concept of death and avoid it like the plague. Veer around the person whose loved one has died, maybe send an innocuous card. A brave soul might say, I’m sorry to hear about your mother/brother/wife.

The griever is expected, after missing a few days of work, to act normal, to show no emotion that may be seen as sad, maudlin, angry, or grief-stricken. Crying is verboten. After all, people will feel edgy and avoid the grieving. So act like it’s life as normal.

The truth is, grief takes time. There is no set limit but it often takes a year to process through a person’s emotions. People who deny their grief and don’t go through the process can actually do physical damage to themselves. The storing up of such emotions, rather than releasing them through a natural process, can also affect the person’s psyche for the rest of their lives. Studies have shown that you can’t put off your grieving for too long, that there is a crucial period when the grieving should take place.

And yet our society tries to make everyone a stoic, free from any emotions except those that are uplifting and bright. By doing this, we cauterize ourselves from the full range of what it means to be human, effectively castrated from all but the most superficial feelings. You cannot have joy without experiencing pain. A constant state of euphoria cannot last and becomes the norm on which a person then judges bad or good, happy or sad. What would normally be sad becomes huge trauma and depression, with no end in sight to it.

I believe it is this unhealthy avoidance attitude that society has to death and negative emotions which have caused an increase in drug use, both recreational and with anti-depressants, to handle what once our bodies could do on their own. We have fewer ways to cope naturally and must go to the drugs. Drug addicts cannot find that constant euphoria so they hunt it in the addiction, afraid to face a life that encompasses happiness and pain.

And death–we can’t avoid it. It will happen. I never knew what to say to anyone when their family member or friend died. We don’t hug our coworkers, we don’t pat them on the shoulders. We maintain distance. We don’t wail at funerals and beat our breasts. And yet we should, for in those acts we express the grief that otherwise builds up in us. We have an outlet that lets us return to a healthy mentality faster.

I regret that when my sister-in-law’s parents died (at different times) that I didn’t know what to say and said nothing at all. How callous. How ignorant. It took the death of a friend for me to experience the grieving process and to understand how people can feel, and just how long it can take to think of that person without crying and feeling as if someone has crushed your heart. I began to understand that a person grieving can feel very cut off and alone, and as if no one cares.

It is almost like being shunned, when someone has to grieve. Letting a person or a community grieve publicly, sharing memories, talking about the person who passed can help. It validates the feelings and a person will recover faster from mourning if they are allowed to express themselves. And yes it can take a year or longer. I have only lost friends and that affected me greatly. I can’t imagine the depth of the pain and loneliness that their spouses felt.

We can all change this debilitating trend by not being so scared of death and the process that we pretend doesn’t exist. The TV show Six Feet Under took a black humor look at death, from the death that opened each episode to the dysfunctional and very real lives of the mortician family that dealt with their own issues and the mourners for the dead. It was an adventuresome show because it touched on death in a very real way that we shy away from. And the show was a hit; witty, tender, irreverent, strange and examining some aspects of life we would rather avoid.

Now, when I know someone who has lost a loved one, I try to let them grieve, to make sure they know it’s all right, to help them and to express my condolences so that they don’t feel isolated. It is the best way to make life more meaningful, by acknowledging the death of friends, family and coworkers.

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The Stones of Ireland: I

Giants Causeway In October, 2007 I travelled to Ireland, a place I had wanted to visit for years. I’m not sure why exactly as there is no Irish in my blood and other countries have more and bigger castles. It was more the sense of rolling green hills and the land of faery, a romantic notion perhaps.

We circumnavigated Ireland in two weeks, going north, then west, then south and east, starting and ending in Dublin. There were some key sites we wanted to see but then let ourselves be guided by road signs and guide books.

This was a mostly outdoor expedition involving trips to old castles and monasteries and some cemeteries, as well as driving through the changing landscape. The history of the architecture and how it had changed over time was fascinating, small enclosures and Viking settlements built over with increasingly sophisticated fortifications or ecclesiastical buildings.

Newgrange and Knowth were amazing in that these structures were built over 5,000 years ago and are older than the pyramids of Egypt. Some of the passage tombs fell apart or were scavenged for stones for other buildings and roads. Many of these barrows have a corridor or an interior built with slabs of stone, then dirt is mounded over. Newgrange’s corbeled stone roof has never leaked in 5,000 years. The hummocked hills gave rise to the tales of the homes of the sidhe and the Tuatha de Danan.

Knowth BarrowsOther barrows were built over with time, dirt being added, and villages or cattle settling upon them. Some of their original use is a mystery but some contain bones or human ashes. Others may have been ceremonial or religious structures. Newgrange is the most impressive as it was built upon a hill and the outer wall lined with white quartz (this was rebuilt in more recent times and there is argument as to how it may actually have been placed), which would be striking in the bright sun and visible for miles around.

Giants Causeway on the north coat of Northern Ireland was a natural structure of basalt rock that had been rapidly heated and cooled millennia ago causing large octagonal pillars to form. They break apart in slabs, maintaining their structure and can be walked over like steps. Some form natural seats or chairs. There is a section called the organ because it looks like a giant pipe organ in the hill. There seems to only be that one area in Ireland that has such unique stones.

The castles and monasteries abounded as well as the very old cemetery of Monasterboice with the millennium old tower (imagine Rapunzel) that they believe was used for storage, sanctuary and to watch for marauders. Some of the carvings on pillars still showed wonderful detail; leaves, faces both animal and human, various designs. Some of the blocks of stone seemed to have been placed with a sense of tone, dark and light stones alternating, or smaller pebbles placed in the mortar between larger stones.

Over the centuries many of these castles and churches fell into ruin but they were not abandoned. Tombs and graves pepper every place. The oldest monastery floors are nothing but tomb after tomb. There is nothing to do but walk over the bones of the past. Even walls have been taken over, a person interred into the very foundation and a plaque sealing them in. The oldest readable stones go to the 1700s. Older than that, the words become too worn away, by feet and weather. There are graves dating over a thousand years in some cases, right up to months of the current date.

Some graveyards have been held by the ruling families or clans and there might be dozens of McDonnells buried in one area such as Ballycastle. Other graves are family plots and in the more modern ones, configured by a low fence, a bar, about six inches from the ground. These more modern plots have pebbled glass or stone in different combinations of color, and some flowers, real or not. Some are very individual. Headstones often denote many generations entombed in the plot, going back a century or more. At one Benedictine monastery there was a family of four cleaning and smoothing the stones of their family’s plot on a sunny day.

Continued tomorrow

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