Some customs associated with Death can be a great source of inspiration for writing
Here Lies the Servant of God
Sub-Lieutenant in the English Navy
Who Died for the Deliverance of
Constantinople from the Turks.
The poet Rupert Brooke was buried on the Greek island Skyros, and those words are his epitaph. He was travelling to Gallipoli when he succumbed to septic pneumonia that developed after a mosquito bite. It has been claimed that the first three lines of his famous poem “The Soldier” were intended as his own epitaph:
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
In last month’s newsletter I mentioned the predilection for some people to select and pay for a headstone some years before it is eventually used. Apparently many poets prepare their own epitaphs in advance, hence the reference to Rupert Brooke in the introduction. A good epitaph is one that makes the observer think about the person lying underneath the headstone. It should be memorable, which is why some of the most famous epitaphs warn the living about mortality, such as this one:
Death sudden stroke dissolved
My evil frame
Reader prepare, your fate
May be the same.
Others take the form of black humour, being positioned so the epitaph may only be read by standing on the grave. They take the form of a warning, and may cause the curious reader grave concern:
Gay, thoughtless Reader, view this sod,
Where youth and beauty mouldering lid.
It warns thee with the voice of God,
Prepare, for though shall surely die.
It could, with a bit of editing, take the form of a curse, which is probably one of the reasons cemeteries are such a prime setting for stories in the horror/scary genre. Imagine straining over a mouldy, slanting tombstone in an effort to read the epitaph, only to read that you’ve called forward an ancient curse. Perhaps the spell to break the curse in contained on another tombstone, but you’ve only got a few hours to find it!
Epitaphs can also be memorable because the words were penned by a loved one. I found this emotional epitaph particularly poignant:
Stranger by the roadside, do not smile
When you see this grave, though it’s only a dog’s,
My master wept when I died, and his own hand
Laid me in earth and wrote these lines on my tomb.
Violation of graves, tombstones or associated buildings is considered a serious offence, because cemeteries are extremely respected places. If there’s a chapel and/or a crematorium at the cemetery there may be a memorial garden or wall of remembrance decorated with plaques containing the names of those who chose to be cremated.
In many cultures cemeteries are places of superstition, and over the ages they’ve been the venue for many stories and legends. Most burial ceremonies are conducted during the day; it’s at night time when the cemetery becomes the ideal setting for a horror story. Black magic ceremonies usually take place at night, which is the time preferred by grave robbers. Another example of sinister activities is attributed to Haiti’s Voudun religion, where a zombie is created after the selected victim is fed a drug made from the poisonous puffer fish. The dosage given slows the heart so that the victim appears dead. After his burial in a coffin in a shallow grave the newly created zombie is dug up and forced into some form of service as payback for some crime he may have committed or a promise he failed to keep.
One of the earliest known surgical procedures known to man is the art of embalming, the preservation of the human body. This is different from taxidermy, which recreates an animal’s body using its skin. Historically there were some practical reasons for this practice – the Inca’s of Peru had a climate that made embalming a necessity. During the Crusades the soldiers’ bodies would be preserved to ensure they could be buried closer to home, and this practice has been used in different wars since that time. The Egyptians, probably the most renowned embalmers, mummified a body to empower the soul after death, believing the soul would return to the preserved corpse. Embalming is also used for presentation, to make the body suitable for display at a funeral. It should be noted that embalming does not stop decay – it simply delays the process. A few interesting cases:
When Eva Peron died her husband had her embalmed, and 16 years after her death Eva’s body was found to be in perfect condition. This led to some Argentineans to call for her canonisation.
Abraham Lincoln’s body was exhumed 100 years after his death, and displayed no signs of decomposition, apart from his skin, which had been oxidised by chemicals and turned black.
Pope Pius XII’s embalmer managed to botch the embalming process, and speed up the rate of decomposition. The odour was so bad the guards were changed every 15 minutes to prevent them from passing out. The embalmer had taken photographs of the Pope as he died, but no tabloid would touch them. This happened in 1958, and he’d become pope in 1939. His attitude towards the atrocities of the Second World War, especially the Holocaust, made him a controversial figure.
Conversely Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963, is on public display at the basilica of Saint Peter. His body is in an extremely well preserved state, thanks to the embalming process applied.
Human rights activist Medgar Evers was so well embalmed an autopsy performed 30 years after his death revealed enough evidence to secure a conviction of his murderer.
Mummies have featured prominently in horror films, with special attention paid to the rather disturbing techniques used for mummification. Sometime a person is mummified alive as a punishment for angering the king or committing some crime or sin.
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