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Monday, September 17, 2012

Graveyard Watch and other death fears




  
I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” ~ Woody Allen

Some say that much of human behaviour, from watching unreal ‘reality TV’ to novel writing, cake baking, mountain climbing, and empire building, is just ‘displacement activity’ - mass distractions used to fend off awareness of our own inevitable non-being. Actually, I reckon some people don’t really know they’re going to die; oh, they ‘know’, all right - but they don’t ‘know’. Death can seem unreal until it actually approaches us.

“What’s the point of thinking about it? There’s nothing you can do!”

Too right! But for some, it’s all they can think about. It becomes obsessive.

Since the earliest times mankind has had a fear of the unknown, especially of death, dying and the dead. Much of this fear is centred on an irrational fear of ‘unreal’ occurrences. We expressed it in many ways – the casting out of lepers is a common example. But it need not only be lepers. It can be any person whose condition falls outside the norm and this condition creates a raised anxiety amongst other members of a community. Sometimes this action was highly socialised, for example, clans and tribes who left their sick, injured and maimed out in the wilderness to die. At other times it was almost a phobic anxiety to anything different – someone with open and weeping sores or obviously suffering the effects of some disease or disorder.

A phobia is a persistent, irrational, intense fear of a specific object, activity, or situation, fear that is recognized as being excessive or unreasonable by the individual himself. When a phobia is a significant source of distress or interferes with social functioning, it is considered a mental disorder (sometimes called a phobic disorder )

A social phobia  an anxiety disorder characterized by fear and avoidance of social or performance situations in which the individual fears possible embarrassment and humiliation. A specific phobia  persistent and excessive or unreasonable fear of a circumscribed, well-defined object or situation.

Quite often those intense anxieties were centred on the dead and the afterlife. Many believe that burials or cremations were instituted to stop wild animals getting at the corpse of our dead but others believe it was to ensure that they did not come back!

"The mourning process was strictly kept in Victorian times. A wreath of laurel or boxwood tied with crape or black veiling was hung on the front door to alert passersby that a death had occurred. The body was watched over every minute until burial, hence the custom of "waking". The wake also served as a safeguard from burying someone who was not dead, but in a coma. Many families would host wakes in their homes for up to four days and the tradition of bringing fresh flowers to funerals stemmed from a time before embalming. Flowers were a way of masking the odor of the decaying corpse. Caskets were often placed on a cooling board which resembled a tub or crate of ice under the body to slow down the decaying process. Clocks were stopped at the time of death and mirrors were either draped with black cloth or turned to the wall so the spirit of the deceased could not get caught in them. The dead were carried out of the house feet first, in order to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him. Family photographs were also sometimes turned face-down to prevent any of the close relatives and friends of the deseased from being possessed by the spirit of the dead."

Many funerary rites were developed to ensure the smooth transition of the dead to another world – we did not want them coming back. Our civilisation arose out of Africa and the middle East and in those areas.

Although death is an undesired event, it is believed to be the beginning of someone’s deeper relationship with creation. African religions believe that anyone who dies must be given a proper traditional funeral and ceremonies. If it is not done, the dead person may become a wandering ghost, unable to live properly after death and therefore a danger to those who are still alive. It is also believed that giving the dead a befitting burial rite help to protect the living from sudden death. Some Africans have a custom of removing a dead body through a hole created in the wall of the house rather than through the door. Though, the hole in the wall is closed immediately as the dead person is removed through it. They believe that by passing the dead through the hole, it will be impossible for the dead person to remember the way back to the living since the hole in the wall has been closed.

From ancient Egypt we get the first recorded instances of post-mortem purification. The purification of mourners has been the other powerful motive in much post-funerary action. Death being regarded as baleful, all who came in contact with it were contaminated thereby. Consequently, among many peoples, various forms of purification have been prescribed, chiefly bathing and fumigation. 

A remarkable post-funerary custom has been observed in Islām; it is known as the Chastisement of the Tomb. It is believed that, on the night following the burial, two angels, Munkar and Nakīr, enter the tomb. They question the deceased about his faith. If his answers are correct, the angels open a door in the side of the tomb for him to pass to repose in paradise. If the deceased fails his grisly interrogation, he is terribly beaten by the angels, and his torment continues until the end of the world and the final judgment. This also meant that the dead, at least in spirit, would hang around this world seeking to escape their torment. In preparation for this awful examination the roof of the tomb is constructed to enable the deceased to sit up; and, immediately after burial, a man known as a fiqī (or faqih) is employed to instruct the dead in the right answers.

One thing society has always been terrified of (and at the same time, morbidly pre-occupied with) are “The Living Dead”, or, the process of “Zombification”. For those interested the internet and Wikipedia have some interesting search pages on this subject.


The process of animating corpse; as in the traditional voudoun religion, is achieved through fissioning the soul to detach that part responsible for individuality, though it has been theorised that the actual process, if it exists, could involve toxins extracted from (for example) the blowfish. 

Much has been made of zombification, and particularly as a result of biophages, on the silver screen, an early example being the 'Night of the Living Dead' trilogy and more recently the 'Resident Evil' games and films. In the former, the process is less important than the results of mass zombification. 

The process of animating corpse, in the traditional voudoun religion, is achieved through fissioning the soul to detach that part responsible for individuality, though it has been theorised that the actual process, if it exists, could involve toxins extracted from (for example) the blowfish. 

Much has been made of zombification, and particularly as a result of biophages, on the silver screen, an early example being the 'Night of the Living Dead' trilogy and more recently the 'Resident Evil' games and films. In the former, the process is less important than the results of mass zombification. 

My dear old almond tart of a friend, John  Gray, over at Going Gently writes:

“ ….In 4 weeks time The Walking Dead series 3 returns ......”

For me,  Zombification is also used to describe the effects of the dulling or desensitising influences of modern culture, or numbing experiences in general, of which being compelled to watch  The Walking Dead  series would be the most somniferous of all.

Oh! As to Dead Ringer, Saved by the Bell,  The Graveyard Shift, and other such terms of folklore, Michael Quinion at World Wide Words states:

The following is part of a longer piece that’s been making the rounds by e-mail in recent months. Is any of it true?
England is old and small and they started running out of places to bury people. So, they would dig up coffins and would take their bones to a house and re-use the grave. In reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on their wrist and lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. Hence on the ‘graveyard shift’ they would know that someone was ‘saved by the bell’, or he was a ‘dead ringer’.
You may not be pleased to hear that all this is complete and utter hogwash, just like the rest of the article. It’s an example of a fascinating process (that is, from a sociolinguistic perspective) in which people actively seek out stories to explain phrases, not really caring whether they are true, just that they are psychologically satisfying. As a result, they are powerful memes, strongly resisting refutation. But World Wide Words is renowned as the home of lost causes, so I’ll give it a go.Saved by the bell is actually boxing slang, dating from the 1930s. A contestant being counted out might be saved by the ringing of the bell for the end of the round, giving him a minute to recover. Graveyard shift is an evocative term for the night shift between about midnight and eight in the morning, when — no matter how often you’ve worked it — your skin is clammy, there’s sand behind your eyeballs, and the world is creepily silent, like the graveyard (sailors similarly know the graveyard watch, the midnight to four a.m. stint). The phrase dates only from the early years of the twentieth century. The third phrase — dead ringer — dates from roughly the same period or perhaps a decade or two earlier. I’ve written about it previously, so won’t explain it again.
So none of these expressions has anything to do with the burying of bodies. 
 World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2012. 
On that note, I will comment that the expression "Ringer" has a meaning all of its own in Australia. The 'Ringer' is the top hand on a cattle or sheep station and a 'ringer' can also mean a term applied to someone or animal participating in an event 'under false colours' - that is a cheat, or at least, a far better performer who is hiding their true levels of performance from other competitors.

1 comment:

The Elephant's Child said...

While I have a few phobias and a couple of anxieties, death is not one of them. Perhaps just as well. My mind is cluttered enough as it is.