Quotes from: American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the Twenty-First Century by Shannon Lee Dawdy
“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.”
Cult classic is free:
The synopsis for our third mythpunk novel THE LATHING:
The Lathing (Vol. 3 of the Circo del Herrero Series) Synopsis:
[Smack dab in the Bible Belt’s buckle, Vulcan arranges His pagan pieces. The tribal casinos are nothing but referential backdrop for His latest hustle. The gods have all paid to play. They’ve offered up parts of themselves to help make “The Game”—some more than others—but their chimeric incarnations are not where they place their bets. It is the human players they gamble on. The gods know the game is rigged but that’s half the fun, figuring out just what Vulcan has pre-programmed— how it works—how they, too, might cheat.
And like the gods, some Automata think they’ve found the secret mechanism that makes it all tick. Other Automata, however, are not so sure. They choose opposing humans—humans with flaws and sins so much like their own. Those they pick show less about the beings they’ve become than the ghosts that still haunt and possess them…
THE LATHING is the final attestation of the Narrator and the Editor—the final volume in the CIRCO DEL HERRERO series. In it, once-gods may find forgiveness and be made whole again if they pick the winning team. Automata may find a self that is worth knowing and saving. But the humans, well, they were just lucky the game found them before Death did. They’ll live just a little while longer before finding something truly worth dying for. At the end of it all is glory and godhood and possibly a cat.]
GABBLER RECOMMENDS: The Messy, Beautiful Worldbuilding of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by Matt Mikalatos
‘It seems to me that the confused mythology of Narnia is a feature, not a bug. Lewis is pulling in anything and everything that has meaning to him and patching it all together into some new myth. He and Tolkien were both interested in creating a new mythic story—it’s just that Tolkien was weaving his mythology from whole cloth, and Lewis was putting together a quilt, taking snatches of this or that mythology to make something that resonated with him as both new and true.
So, yes, he cuts out the sex from the fauns and the Bacchanalia, because that’s not the element of their mythology that he finds of interest. He tweaks Father Christmas so that he becomes a figure on par with the minor gods of Narnia. He ignores inconvenient plot points like the fact that food might be pretty hard to get in a country where it has been winter for years and years. He’s doing all this to move us toward the parts of the story that he finds most compelling: there is a broken world full of winter and traitors and evil creatures, but spring is coming…and we can be part of that heroic progression.
The underlying cohesion of Lewis’s world-building isn’t, like many of us might prefer, a watertight world with a central logic to it. That kind of world is for adults. Lewis’s world is a child’s world, where myths mix and overlap, where what is true and what is magical might be the same thing, where there is uncertainty when your sister says, “I found a fantasy world hidden in the furniture.”
In his essay “Myth Made Fact” Lewis explains the underlying rationale for why he would mash together any myth or symbol that rang true to him. He wrote, “… myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to. It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.” Myth transcends thought, and Lewis believed that what resonated in, as he would say, “Pagan myth” was reality itself. Truth could be found in it, but to read a myth searching for truth would cause you to miss the point because you would lean into abstractions. One must experience the myth as story to have a concrete experience of the reality it represents.’