Posts from ‘October, 2013’

A Burial, A Womb.

wombsLinks below.

TOTEM BURIAL
There is a quiet, dim room in little-traveled wing of the American Museum of Natural History. Behind a glass case, lying on a re-created bed of museum-grade silt and sand, is a little shrouded god. Perhaps one of the first on our planet, certainly the oldest god I’ve ever seen up close: a god so old it belongs to a separate subspecies of sapiens.

“The boy of Teshik-Tash” was a Neanderthal child of 8-9 years of age, buried approximately 70,000 years ago in a cave in what is now southern Uzbekistan. The body was discovered beneath five levels of geologic silt and wash, hundreds of tools, and almost a thousand animal bones, amid a protective ring of ibex horns. It was the only body recovered at the site. The skull alone was reconstructed from over one hundred fragments.

The AMNH has recreated an estimation of the site of this child’s (the gender has recently come under scrutiny) burial. The horns of the ibex rose, sloped and protected the body, while also creating a kind of shrine. The child was wrapped in furs and laid in the fetal position, alone, behind a protective wall, in a cave  not used for any other burial or long-term living quarters. It is worth noting here that Neanderthals were known for–in the rare examples of an actual Neanderthal burial site–laying bodies to rest on their sides and not prone, and they buried individually, not in mass graves or plots.

When I stumbled upon this little Paleolithic child in the museum years ago, I was struck powerfully. This did not read to me as any young loss. I saw a miniature temple to a childlike shaman in those bones and rags. A primitive raiment to house the vessel of their young avatar, someone who symbolized more to those proto-humans than did any other member of their tribe. I saw a child being treated as holy, otherworldly. There’s something pitiful and powerful about seeing it in the museum: the crumpled figure in a sterile vitrine lies largely ignored in a dusty corner, yet it is immediately arresting when you see it. A deep yawning carries across 70,000 years to reach straight into your core.


A DIFFERENT BIRTH
Project Womb is a conceptual funerary service developed by artist and designer Diddo. It features a notional corpse on its side, curled into the fetal position, wrapped in a shroud, encapsulated in an ovoid, wooden funeral “egg”. It’s a comforting, welcoming concept for death, as it offers a sense of finality that all funerary rituals should possess. The project has been slickly designed and executed, so much so that I think I would be very happy were I to be laid to rest in such a way. (I have my own ideas about how that might actually happen, but that’s probably a story for another day) The essential nature of the project is, in the artist’s own words:

“Across cultures, our relationship with it[death] seems based on avoidance and denial. We asked ourselves, why isn’t death treated as naturally and gracefully as birth? Why can’t we perceive it in a more positive way? And redesign its rituals to reveal, rather than conceal, who we really are?”

As soon as I saw the concept, it reminded me of the burial site in the museum; the sideways-facing body, the fetal arrangement. The promises of Project Womb are futuristic and forward-looking, and though it looks to ‘birth’ as the natural and organic answer to death, the ideas and practices behind it are older than perhaps anyone truly knows.

The other service Project Womb would offer is a cloud-based memory archive, including stills and video of the deceased creating a timeline, a memory bank of interviews from the bereaved, and also (most interestingly) your personal DNA archive to be kept on file for 150 years. A truly futuristic take on death, divorced from religion. It reminds me of the beliefs of Germanic paganism; life ends when you die, but your afterlife begins with the stories shared by your loved ones: the best life is the one your descendants will want to pass on.


TRANSFORMATION
Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has a passage that takes place 16,000 years in the past. A totem of bones and skin is carried by a devoted tribe, and the god Nunyunnini speaks through its followers in many voices. This is an early god, and Nunyunnini works most effectively with primitive components: fungus, blood, piss, smoke. An arresting moment occurs when the god seizes the voice of the tribe’s own holy woman, and she declares herself an unfit prophet who is deserving of death: it is at that moment you believe in the power of the proto-god, for what holy authority would damn themselves to their congregation?

Her own death fulfills a prophecy allowing the passage of native people across the Bering Strait into North America, and pieces of the god and the holy woman accompany the tribe even as they lose meaning in the new world. The symbols and geography Gaiman employs remind me of the same primal theism I felt upon looking at the body of the Teshik-Tash child.

I find myself obsessed with death rituals across cultures: how death is recognized, celebrated, or even ignored. What meaning we inject into our time on this planet; where the human species has come from; where we perceive or imagine our species will go; and our individual, very limited glimpses into the now. How we manage to navigate our lives with any sense of meaningful context boggles my mind; how quickly the concept of life becomes overwhelming in the face of  the enormity of the universe, the vast pool of shared human experience, the gulfs that divide us despite our desires for connection, and how quickly it is all over.

Further reading:
– Reconstruction of the burial site at Teshik-Tash can be found in the Hall of Asian Peoples at the AMNH. Read more.
– Project Womb, by Diddo. Read more. Works by Diddo.
– 14,000 B.C., an excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Read more.