Fetishism of The Dead Body

    In this post I explore our relationship with dead bodies and how we turn them into The Dead Body (TDB).  This was something I wanted to write as an essay and do properly back in early October.  But unfortunately I never found the time.  Instead enjoy this informal and casual post of mine, it was written for fun so with luck it should be fun to read.

    Again, I should point out this was written rather late and after a dive into some 'abstract' literature.  So I was more blowing off steam and relaxing when writing this than actually forming an argument or article.  As such it might be a bit odd in places, but it might also be interesting and different to what most people are use to.  I usually write my posts in one go and don't proof read them, so sometimes things do not link up as they should or repeat themselves.  As always, criticise it, never take what I say as truth, and just enjoy yourself!  If you disagree with what I write then feel free to say so in the comments below.

     A lot of importance and significance is given to The Dead Body.  It becomes a thing of reverence, idolised to an extreme.  But unfortunately in doing this we lose our realistic connection to The Dead Body.  Taking it beyond what it is and making it into something unrealistic.  To the point where in many cases one no longer needs the actual dead body, just the idea of The Dead Body.

    To explore our reverence of The Dead Body lets first look at the coffin.  I do this as the coffin is the thing which encases the body and the focus of the funeral.  It is the thing which we most relate to the body and the most obvious way we see commodification of the body and the funeral.  The coffin is often the single most expensive item on the funeral, usually starting at $1,000 and easily going over $5,000 for the low to mid-range ones.  Lots of emphasis and detail is often put into a coffin, people discuss the material used, the detail on the outside, the lining on the inside and so on.  Here is where I would discuss Marx's commodity fetishism, but do not have time.  How important commodities are in our lives to the point where we start to bring them into our selfhood.  Take for example products that flatter our ego, such as those that start with an 'i' (especially lower case to emphasise it) in their name.  These products appeal to our sense of self, you are not buying a thing or an item.  You are buying something you can bring into yourself, a way of life.  By far the most relatable example is of the iPod.  The name is very ego focused, and the advertising focused on having fun with it, showing people dancing to music rather than telling you about the product itself.

    While it might appear strange this is the same as with the coffin, although possibly less obvious.  The coffin is talked of in personal ways, it becomes 'his' or 'her' coffin and not 'the' coffin.  And there is a lot of focus on how the coffin will be used or meet the desires of the consumer (be they the deceased or the mourners).  In the documentary 'The Undertaking' (2007) there is a scene where they discuss coffins with a mourner.  The mourner explains how her deceased mother did not like the idea of water, so the undertaker shows her a coffin that is waterproof and rust resistant.  This is an example of the focus being on how the coffin will be used by the customer.  That it will protect and preserve the deceased as per their wishes and the desires of the mourner.  The coffin was presented in this way to the mourner, to meet their desires.  Which is really no different to the iPod advertisements.  In both cases the focus was on how the product will be used, how it will meet the desires of the customer.

    Some might think that this only applies to specific or certain instances.  That in most cases we think of the coffin not as a commodity or as a product.  But this is not the case at all, it is always a commodity and always treated as such.  The attention paid to the aesthetics of the coffin, or the environmental impact of the coffin are also part of this.  They are both aspects of how the product will be used and how it will meet the desires of the consumer.  The coffin becomes an important commodity for the funeral process.  It is commodified, packaged up and sold to meet desires of the buyer.

    There is a lot of emotional attached to the coffin.  Any movement or interaction with the coffin (such as placing items on it, or moving it) on a funeral service is a highly significant thing.  Often the funeral pauses as all focus is drawn to this interaction.  The Catholic funeral is a good example of this, specifically when the priest raises the incense over the coffin.  It is a rather simple act essentially, the priest simply shakes the incense over the coffin three times on three sides.  Symbolic of the rising of the deceased's soul to heaven and of 'The Father', 'The Sone' and The Holy Spirit'.  Physically there is little to this action, even spiritually it is not a complex thing.  Yet the funeral stops and focuses completely on this.  Silence falls, nobody talks of moves except the priest doing the action.  For a simple action it gets a lot of attention, time and reverence.  One might think this is simply due to the spiritual or religious side of the symbolic act.  However, I argue that this is not so, that it is due to interaction with the coffin rather than anything relating to religion.  In many Catholic funeral services much of the service is religious and the funeral does not focus so much on them.  Take for instance communion, sure there is focus on this and it is a very important part of the service.  Despite this it does not get the same intense focus as the incense.  During communion people are moving, words are being said, many things are going on at once.  Unlike the incense where there is only that and everyone looks at it.  In other words the incense part gets more attention and reverence than communion on a Catholic funeral.  And during the incense part the coffin is only being interacted with in a very minor way physically.  Even a slight interaction with the coffin gets more attention than the religious aspects of the funeral service.

    Some might doubt this translates to other religions, or non-religious funerals.  But it does, as no matter the funeral in almost every case if there is interaction with the coffin then all attention is on it.  Another good example is when the coffin is carried in or out of anywhere.  Special music is played for this part, it is a completely (and noticeably) different part of the service.  And nothing else goes on during this part so all attention can be directed to the coffin moving.

    The coffin becomes more important than most other things on the funeral.  In some ways it is more important (to the mourners) than the hearse.  It is turned into a significant commodity, one with serious emotions attached to it.  But one must wonder why, after all it is physically little more than a wooden box we see for a few hours before never seeing or interacting with again.  To spend thousands of dollars and to place such emotional importance on something so simple, something only interacted with so briefly.  In most other instances this would be considered strange, but with the funeral we accept it readily.  Indicating how much importance we give the coffin.

    But this significance of the coffin remains true off the funeral as much as on it.  Many people have a hesitation about interacting with a coffin.  Thinking it strange when others lie in one, or make one.  A friend once said even pictures of coffins maker her uneasy.  The reason for this is that they remind us of what goes inside.  So much importance is placed on the body within the coffins that coffins themselves become entangled in this importance.  We wish to treat the body lavishly, with reverence and romanticise it.  Doing so to such an extent that even things which touch the body become important as well.  The coffin is treated so specially because it touches a body, which we consider so special.

    Many would not notice if the wrong type of hearse arrived, but damage to the coffin or the wrong coffin would be noticed.  Essentially the importance of things on the funeral (from items to practices) radiates out from the body.  As in the closer it is, physically or mentally, to the body the more importance it has.  Of course, this is not a fixed rule nor even one I have had time to look into much.  But it illustrates my point, how the body is the focal point of the funeral.  That we do things like commodify the coffin because of the body it contains.

    The body is considered so important, so reverent, that this importance and reverance contaminates anything which interacts with the body.  This reverence comes about through our lack of interaction with the body.  Society has removed many processes from life or sight, most would not know how a body made it from the place of death to the funeral.  The process of how the body is treated, cleaned, dressed, coffined and so on, is all absent from our understanding.  Few will see or understand this process in action, and even fewer will have a role in this process.  I have found incredibly few people know much if anything of this process.  So few know the transfer car used to move bodies is a regular van or wagon.  They often think it would be a special car or have never thought about it at all.  Few even know much about companies operating in the funeral industry let alone the specific process of how a body is prepared.

    Essentially the dead body is taken away, then returned on the funeral in a beautiful and ideal state.  Much like the meat at the shops, it appears before us in clean plastic boxes with no indication of how it got there.  As such we only see the beautiful ideal, the romantic end product and not the real process of how it came to be.  Because of this the end result is romanticised, it becomes the standard and we think in extremes.  The body is no longer a body, we have taken it out of reality and made it into The Dead Body (TDB).  It becomes a romantic ideal, far removed from reality and so very important to us.  This is only made possible through removing the process of how TDB came to be.  To see this process is not 'dirty' or even negative.  It simply removes the romantic notions and brings our understanding and perceptions back to reality, showing us what TDB really is.

    Here exists a strange and almost paradoxical disconnect.  On one hand the body is so highly regarded and such an important part of the service.  Yet in contrast the body is confined to the back and avoided, rarely seen by mourners.  The body is sometimes so removed from the funeral that if it was physically not there few would notice or care.  Funerals without a viewing would not know the if the coffin was empty.  Nor would an empty coffin have an impact on the funeral service in many cases.  Take my grandparents funerals, how if the coffin had been empty it woud have made no difference at all.  If anything it would have been easier to carry for us and the funeral staff.  The only times we interacted with the coffin it remained closed, it was put into a hearse and driven off to a crematorium.  At no point was the body itself involved in the service.

    Some may find this point discomforting, wrong or even confrontational.  That in some ways a body is superfluous and not needed on the funeral.  And this is fine, because in some ways this argument is wrong.  The body is a very important part of dealing with grief and processing the death.  But that is the idea of the body, our notion of 'The Dead Body' which is very different from 'the body' or 'a body'.  The Dead Body (TDB) is the idea of the body, the romanticised thing which holds so much significance even the thought of it in a box turns that box into a coffin.  Conversely the body is the actual physical thing, which admittedly is tied to TDB in a lot of ways.  While TDB is a vital part of the funeral, the body is not.  It is the idea and perception of the body which is so important, which is significant to the funeral and which influences what is important about the service.  The body itself is not necessarily part of this, it is prepared behind closed doors then sealed in a box to rarely be seen.  As long as the thought of it is there on the funeral there is no difference.  And this is not just theory, take the case of 'Bricky' for instance.  This funeral director cremated the wrong body, then filled a coffin with bricks to cover it up.  The family only found out after the funeral when a staff member informed them.  This is a case where the body was not at a funeral, yet nobody knew until after the burial when one of the staff told them.  It is an unfortunate tangible example of how the body can be absent without impact one way or the other.  This is because we place such importance and reverence on the body that it becomes removed from reality and thus the reality of the funeral service is not affected by it.  The body is sent to funeral directors, who prepare it out of sight, allowing us to romanticise it beyond what it really is.  It is almost ironic, that the body is given such importance and significance because it is removed and distanced from us.

    The Dead Body is looked upon in an apprehensive and reverential way.  It is treated with such reverence and significance that it is distanced from reality.  And becomes a thing of uncomfortable contention when brought back to reality.  We fetishise TDB in how much significance we give it.  Allowing it to hold so much dominance over us that the mear thought of it dictates the funeral service.

    We occupy an odd and strong relationship with the deceased.  Raising the body to such reverence and romanticising it so much that we turn it into TDB and remove it from reality.  Making it into something so significant that it gives importance to all it touches and directs the funeral.  Yet at the same time TDB is so elevated and focused on that the body itself becomes unnecessary for the funeral, removed from our reality.


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