As many murderers have found, a dead body is a difficult
thing to hide. It’s heavy and awkward to move. It doesn’t make a sound, but it
will begin to attract attention in another way as time passes and it begins to
rot. And people don’t usually look their best when they are dead. If they die
violently, their dead body can be a horrible sight.
But it’s not just murderers who have to face these unpleasant
facts. If someone dies naturally, their dead body is still difficult to move
and to consign to the ground. And many of us are disturbed by the idea of the
dead body rotting, whether it’s our own body or that of a loved one. Bacteria
and worms invade and corrupt once-living flesh – that’s not a pleasant thought.
And it’s not been pleasant for thousands of years, as we can
see from the way some ancient civilizations practised mummification. In ancient
Egypt dead bodies were treated with powerful chemicals, wrapped in strips of
cloth, and sealed inside a sturdy sarcophagus, protecting them from the horrors
of decay. But there’s another solution to the problems posed by a dead body:
to burn it rather than bury it. Fire is
a powerful symbol of life and energy. It turns an awkward and ugly corpse into
clean and convenient ashes.
Ashes are light, not heavy. They don’t smell or look
disturbing and they take up little space. They can easily be scattered, placed
inside an urn or consigned to the earth. But that doesn’t exhaust their
possibilities. Some people prefer the ashes of their departed loved ones to
rest in a special place, like a niche for cremation urns at a cemetery. But
others are happy to keep the ashes at home, whether in an urn or some other
object. Because ashes are so light and easy to shape, they can be sealed into
jewellery, set into a clock or used as part of a painting or diorama.
This can be a particularly good idea if the departed person
had a love of art during their lives. They might even have designed the
art-work themself, happy to think that they would be part of something
beautiful when they had passed away. Ashes can also be mixed into the coloured
glass of a globe or window, so that light shines through the departed person
and brings them to mind in a special way.
But ashes don’t have to be made into art: they can reflect
the personality of the departed person in another way. Some people like the
idea of being part of a joke even when they pass on. Why not put the ashes in
an hour-glass or even an egg-timer? That might seem disrespectful or
undignified, but how can we argue with it if it fits the wishes of the departed
person and their living friends and relatives? Humour is one way to confront
and control the disturbing reality of death.
And using ashes in an hour-glass isn’t necessarily a
humorous thing to do. If the hour-glass is tastefully designed, it becomes a
powerful symbol of how quickly life passes. I can also think of a perfect
quotation to place on an hour-glass like that: Carpe Diem! – “Seize the
Day!” Because sooner or later we all pass away and leave the living behind.