“Scholars and social commentators have pointed to the embalming ritual as evidence for a propensity to deny death by re-creating a lifelike body, another case of American exceptionalism. Historian David Sloane calls it the ‘death taboo.’ But Beverly told me that viewing or touching the embalmed body does quite the opposite–it helps overcome death denial. I will return to this puzzle and how I have come to doubt strong versions of the ‘death denial thesis,’ but first I want to dig into the historical roots of embalming to better understand how Americans became neo-Egyptians in the first place.
President Lincoln’s embalmed and cosmeticized body was placed on a funeral train that made several stops on its two-week journey from Washington…How much this corpse viewing was driven by respect for the martyred president, versus fascination with the novelty of embalming, is impossible to say. But the second motivation should not be discounted…During this same period, ‘Egyptomania’ had captured the American imagination. The display and ceremonial unwrapping of Egyptian mummies was itself a popular spectacle in the nineteenth century…The link between Egyptomania nd the rise of embalming is no trivial coincidence. Early embalmers I interviewed referred seriously to ancient Egyptians as their forerunners, if not forefathers.
When I started this project, I had no idea I was going to run into magicians and ancient Egyptians.
Despite his alter to the Egyptian gods (which we did not discuss), Michael say that modern embalming is not a form of mummification for eternity. The preservation it provides is temporary–a matter of years, maybe decades, but not centuries or millennia. I have come to realize that this is another big disconnect between professional and the public understandings of the embalming practice. Most laypeople seem to assume that the embalming will prevent decay of the body indefinitely. The actual time frame, as with any archaeological deposit, depends on local environmental condition…Materially, its primary purpose resides in the funeral ritual.
Cremation can be romantic. In 1822, the poet Percy Shelley was cremated on a pyre on a beach in Italy by Lord Byron and friends after a boating accident. In death as in life, Romantics wanted to bring back what they thought were the nobler practices of ancient Greece and Rome. The embrace of creation by educated Europeans started to chip away at cultural (and largely Christian) biases against it, but creation did not take off until the later nineteenth century…Historian David Arnold argues that another significant factor in its adoption was the strident defense of traditional cremation by Indian Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs against critiques of the colonial British government. The debate led to a greater public awareness of cremation and a practical need to accommodate the Indian diaspora.
Cremation as a human funerary practice runs deep into antiquity. Archaeological evidence indicates that ancient Australians were practicing cremation at least twenty thousand years ago, possibly much longer….In Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe, Anglo-Saxons and other ‘barbarians’ practiced cremation before Christianity and its peculiar cult of the revenant dead wiped out this form of disposition (it was thought that cremated bodies could not be resurrected on Judgment Day). Protestantism, neo-paganism, secularism, and the influence of immigrants from the colonies opened the way for cremation to return to Europe in the nineteenth century. The revival of cremation also meant the return of fancy Roman-style urns. Shelley would have been pleased.”
Trust the Midas Touch:
GABBLER RECOMMENDS: J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is too busy planning future movies to be much good in the present
“But the truer intent of Fantastic Beasts reveals itself as veteran Harry Potter director David Yates continues to swoop the camera like he’s mapping out a blueprint for Universal’s inevitable Fantastic Beasts roller coaster. Once I accepted that I wasn’t watching a movie so much as a marketing opportunity, I could focus my attention on the rest of what Fantastic Beasts had to offer.
And even though those days are largely behind me, I still thought the prospect of having a new Harry Potter canon in my life might spark something like excitement. Surely seeing a full-blown adaptation of Rowling’s slim book of the same name could be interesting, especially when interwoven with the rise of Gellert Grindelwald, the dark wizard who was Voldemort before Voldemort was Voldemort. And if nothing else, surely the adventures of a magical-creature enthusiast careening around 1920s New York City would be exciting.
As it turns out, not so much.
See, Fantastic Beasts isn’t just a whimsical tale of Newt chasing mischievous Nifflers and gelatinous rhinos around the city. It’s not even about the rise of Grindelwald. It’s about setting the stage for four(!) more movies. Almost all of these dozen or so plots end with, “To be continued.”
The result is that none of Fantastic Beasts’ stories truly get a chance to breathe beyond their cursory consideration. Given the fact that the movie’s narratives are so thin they’re practically translucent, it’s a good thing Yates and the Fantastic Beasts CGI team do their damnedest to give us something pretty to look at.”
Theodora Goss on why she writes:
“This movement to separate fantasy and reality, but also realism and fairy tale, continued into the nineteenth century, and by the end of the century it was very clear that there were the respectable novel and short story, and the considerably less respectable forms of fairy tale, myth, romance (in the old sense of an adventure story), ghost story, etc. By the twentieth century, they occupied different publishing niches, different shelves in the bookstore. As they still do….
Here’s the thing: talking about conservation will not save the badgers of England. If anything will save them, it will be the way people feel about Mr. Badger. We are human beings, and we make decisions based not on logic or rationality, however much we may think we do (deluded as we are about ourselves), but on emotion. And what creates emotion? Story.”
Jo Walton Book Quote:
‘To tell the truth I’ve been pretty angry with God since Mor died: He doesn’t seem to do anything, or to help at all. But I suppose it’s all like magic, you can’t tell if it does anything, or why, not to mention mysterious ways. If I were omnipotent and omnibenevolent I wouldn’t be so damn ineffable. Gramma used to say that you couldn’t tell how things would work out for the best. I used to believe that when she was alive, but then after she died, and Mor died, I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t believe in God, it’s just that I haven’t felt very inclined to get down and worship someone who wants me think “no dbout the universe is unfolding as it should.” Because I don’t. I think I ought to do something about the way the universe is unfolding, because there are things that need obvious and immediate attention…’ –Jo Walton, Among Others.
[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]