“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.”
Ada Palmer, an historian at the University of Chicago, argues that Stoicism is popular in places like Silicon Valley particularly because it doesn’t require a person not to be a CEO of a successful company to be a Stoic. “The Romans loved Stoicism because it was a philosophy that was compatible with political life,” Palmer said.
It’s perhaps unsurprising then that billionaires love a philosophy that doesn’t require them to give up on their wealth, but accept their role in the world, and counsels the less fortunate to not worry so much about their circumstances and accept their lot—as Zeno did when he lost all of his possessions.
“There is a risk that the mega-rich will seek philosophies that basically validate themselves and their lifestyles rather than awakening them to their blind spots, their obligations to their fellow beings,” Evans said.
The metaphysical side of ancient Stoicism contains an explanation as to why we shouldn’t worry about external events but simply our reactions to them—but it raises more potential problems.
The Stoics were monists, and thought that the universe was all connected, made of a divine rational substance called logos. The universe, they believed, was rational because it was organized by logos: Whatever happens is what’s meant to happen. Even things that seem bad to you have been ordained by the divine spark of logic, and so what’s actually bad is your response, which you can change and have control over.
“Stoicism is thus from the outset a deterministic system that appears to leave no room for human free will and more responsibility,” wrote Gregory Hays, associate professor of classics at the University of Virginia, in the introduction to his translation of Meditations. “In reality the Stoics were reluctant to accept such an arrangement, and attempted to get around the difficulty by defining free will as a voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable.” Hays described it like this: Imagine that we are like a dog tied to a moving wagon. “If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged.”
Zuckerberg agreed that in the community that takes Stoicism seriously, the people she’s writing about are in short supply. But in the types of online meeting grounds she explored in her book, she said, “the use of Stoicism is much more superficial yet also more disturbing.” She maintains that it’s the “unfortunate responsibility of people who take Stoicism seriously to insist that out-of-context quotations from Marcus Aurelius aren’t the full picture when it comes to Stoicism, and the reality is a lot more nuanced and less individualistic.”
Whiting felt that Zuckerberg’s warnings in her book went unheeded, and that people dismissed her. “I thought that we did not respond as a Stoic community with kindness to Donna,” Whiting said. “I don’t think we did enough to thank her for the stance that she took and the effort that she made. People say, ‘Oh, you know, she made us look bad.’ She made us look in the mirror.”
Stoicism is a wonderful philosophy, but there are some elements missing, if it’s taken on too unilaterally. Evans found that focus on the rational can omit ecstatic, non-rational approaches to healing and meaning. Incidentally, this can be the case with CBT as well, which is not for everyone, or for every problem. “Some people find the idea of trying to rationalize away your negative beliefs doesn’t work, which is why some people prefer Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” Evans said. “I have a friend with OCD, and he can’t Socratically dispute his intrusive beliefs. That just makes it worse.”