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Virginia Stem Owens


Dust or Ashes?

At the National Museum of Funeral History.

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Incredulity. Laughter. Even dismay. That's how my friends responded when I told them that my daughter and I were going to the National Museum of Funeral History for my birthday. I realized the choice might not be everyone's cup of tea, but why, I wondered, weren't more people intrigued or at least interested in the one event in which we will each be the main attraction? Many people these days arrange for their final appearance ahead of time. So wouldn't they have at least a mild curiosity about how it all works?

Apparently not. My daughter and I were the only two customers that morning at the repository of funeral history, a flat buff building on the north side of Houston. It must be one of the least visited of the city's many museums. This despite the fact that the Trip Advisor website listed it as number ten among Houston's 90 great sites to visit. Hundreds, even thousands of people visit the city's justly famous Museum of Science and Natural History each day, so why wouldn't the ethnography of death interest them as well?

All cultures have had some kind of ritual for disposing of dead bodies. Archaeologists have dug up evidence that Neanderthals placed flowers in the graves of their dead. Egyptians, at least the rich and powerful ones, created large graves for themselves and their prized possessions, which sometimes included living wives and servants. The nomadic biblical patriarchs were buried in special locations that could be visited by their descendants. For example, Jacob's body was embalmed in Egypt and carried by Joseph back to the family burial plot near Mamre, where Abraham and Sarah had earlier been interred.

But not all cultures committed their loved ones to the grave. Exposing bodies to the elements and carrion-scavenging birds has been practiced in varying cultures in different parts of the globe. In North America, plains Indians built scaffolds or placed bodies in trees for birds to pick the flesh from their bones. Fearing the demon that took possession of the body after death, Zoroastrians in Iran, Afghanistan, and India built squat "towers of silence" for their dead. The remains were considered dangerously polluted. When Islamic Iran made such practices illegal and mandated burial, its Zoroastrian citizens lined graves with stones and then poured in concrete to prevent contact of the polluted body with the earth.

Until lately, funerals have almost always been religious in nature. Some sort of clergy—priest, shaman, chaplain, or pastor—has presided. Now, however, funerals have become almost as do-it-yourself as weddings. And preparation of the body, which used to be a family or community duty, is now a thriving business, buttressed by legislation, lobbyists, and licensing.

To provide the industry with future leaders, the Museum of Funeral History shares the building with the Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service. It offers an online Associate Degree of Applied Science that takes only twelve months to complete if one has already passed the four required general education courses: biology, English, psychology, and college algebra.

Probably the funereal practice that strikes westerners as strangest, if not most appalling, is "sky burial." It has been practiced for centuries by Tibetan Tantric Buddhists. After the soul has departed, the body is considered just another carcass. It is taken to a mountaintop, hacked to pieces, sometimes by a priest, and eaten by vultures. In fact, the Tibetan word for this kind of funeral means "giving alms to the birds." Afterward, the bones are pounded to powder and mixed with barley flour, tea, and yak butter, presumably to make the bone powder more palatable to the birds.

The fear of pollution or "uncleanness" by touching a dead body, along with prescriptions for purification, pervades a number of cultures, including the biblical Israelites. The Levitical laws forbade even touching the carcasses of certain animals. Mosaic law provided the rituals of purification and set a limit to the unclean time-out—seven days. On the third day the ancient undertaker had to be sprinkled with a solution of water and the ashes of a red heifer before rejoining the community.

Some cultures, however, expend a good deal of care for the dead, embalming being the most obvious example. Why such a deep cultural divide over bodily disposal? How is it that some commemorate their dead by erecting various kinds of monuments in land set aside and sanctified for burial, while others discard corpses so insouciantly?

My daughter and I bought our $10 tickets in the gift shop stocked with mementoes ranging from t-shirts printed with the museum's motto ("Any day above ground is a good day") to Dracula-blood candy. I went for the go-cup sporting the slogan "In Dog Years I'm Dead."

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