Obsession with death

Amal Chatterjee
13 min readJan 17, 2017


Source : Google photo of the coffin of Tutankhamen

Synopsis : We are obsessed with the rituals of death. Only the manner and the methods vary according to cultures. Some go to great length in expenses and others do it simply so why we are so obsessed with death? The blog notes various cultures where the rituals are taken seriously.

Man has always been obsessed with death. He has made elaborate rituals to be followed after someone dies and perpetuates the myth that somehow these rituals will lead to the Nirvana of the soul. The ancient man who did not have a lot of resources at his disposal to carry on elaborate rituals that entailed a lot of expenses had to rely on his wits to give a proper burial and show respect.

The Egyptians made the funeral an art form where the rich spared no expense to give the proper burial to the deceased. It started with building a massive often underground crypt that took years to make so every Pharaoh was pre occupied with his posterity long before his time came. He undertook the construction of his pyramid or underground crypt and closely supervised the construction with emphasis on details like his wars, his life story, his reign and his good deeds all to be written or painted in hieroglyphs on the walls of his crypt with painstaking details. He saw his sarcophagus where he will sleep for eternity and instructed it to be decorated with gold and precious jewels.

He told his minions exactly what he will need in his afterlife that often included his concubines among many other precious things so these poor women who probably hated the old man had to be buried alive and the tomb sealed. Then the ghouls took over who were specialists in the art of preserving the body because it was no simple affair. It took weeks and months to do it by wrapping the entire body in scented linen soaked in preserving fluids after removing all the organs and emptying the skull of its contents and keeping them well preserved in myopic jars separately. The inside of the body was then filled with body preserving substances.

Then the body now called mummy was placed inside the decorated wooden casket that looked like the Pharaoh embellished with gold leaf and painted beautifully by the expert artists in myriads of colors. This was then placed inside the sarcophagus that was often carved out of solid granite or alabaster while the victims to be buried alive trembled in fear. These were the elaborate and very expensive rituals for the rich in Egypt long time ago.

The poor people who did not have such resources did the best they could and buried their dead in the desert often marking the spot with a simple rock.

The Romans were very practical people so they did not believe in all these elaborate rituals of Egyptians whom they considered decadent and inbreeding effeminates so they made huge bonfire and reduced their dead into ashes because it was the practical thing to do and hygienic too. The Hindus were also very practical person who perhaps learned a thing or two from the Romans or was it the other way around? The history does not say.

The Native Americans who followed and hunted the wild game for their sustenance did not have a permanent settlement because of their constant moving camps so had to seek a way to give a proper burial to their departed souls so they wrapped the bodies and often placed them high in trees to keep out the wild animals or covered with piles of stones where there were no trees.

So different people in different parts of the world developed their own methods and rituals that are still followed today although elaborate mummy making has gone out of style in most parts because no one has that kind of money. The pyramids and the crypts are for the tourists to see and photograph although I am sure it was not the original idea. The thieves over the years made a beeline to the crypts and broke into them to steal what they could to sell in the black market and still do. Just go to the remote villages in Egypt and pass the word around that you are looking for stolen artifacts and soon some thieves will show up with goods wrapped in dirty clothes and bargain hard to get the most value.

This is how the parchments of ancient Biblical texts called the lost gospels of Judas etc. were discovered. The illiterate villagers did not know the value of it so probably sold it for a pittance but that is getting away from the main story here.

When I was working in Mali, West Africa, I came to know about a strange and gruesome ritual still being practiced in the rural parts of the Ivory Coast where they buried heads of people along with the deceased so the Malian farm workers were often the victims. I saw one such grave myself in the northern part of the Ivory Coast. It is so bad that when some old geezer croaks or about to croak who was a village chief or a clan chief, the Malian farms worker just flee because hanging around is not good for their health so to speak. This has given rise to bounty hunters who supply the required heads for a price and perform a service. They also make 100% profit so it is a good business all round.

But the Christians started the practice of burial although some did not fare so well and were fed to the lions alive by the Romans in the early part of their history thus saving considerable expense and feeding the lions as well who were always kept hungry for such feasts. Romans were penny pinchers in such matters and claimed the practicality of it too because to them the Christians were just lion food for free.

They also decorated both sides of the Appian highway with the severed heads of their victims of war on stakes to show their aesthetic sense as well .Thankfully the Romans have gone now and the Appian highway is just for the camera toting tourists who take photos of anything just in case they miss something during their prepaid short and organized tours.

So I too walked the Appian highway once to see what was there to see with a German boy in tow and found a restaurant by the road side that looked very inviting so we went in for a cold beer but was surprised to find no one inside. This was very strange so we walked out pronto because we had seen too many mafia movies and did not want to investigate further. Who knew what we could have found?

Source : Google photo of underground crypts near Rome

So further down the road we came upon a sign that showed the way to a vast underground city of the dead and sure enough a large group of tourists who were being lectured by a guide while they clicked their cameras furiously. We then joined the crowd because the guide could not remember all the faces anyway .To him perhaps all these weird foreigners looked alike so we took advantage of this fact and joined the tour for free.

We descended a steep ramp that brought us to dimly lit tunnels that extended for kilometers and were so vast that no one had fully mapped them while the guide kept on saying that people should stay close to him at all the time and no one should venture out on his own. Many have died doing so and never could find their way out of the maze. On the walls on both sides of the tunnels were hand dug crypts stuffed with skeletons of untold number of Christians who were thus buried in secret. The Romans were after live victims and were not really interested in dead people anyway so these underground places remained hidden for centuries until someone in the tourist department thought of a way to make some money out of it, hence the guided tours.

Source : Google photo of monastery of skulls in Rome

But just go to Rome and Paris and you will come across some gruesome places where the bones are kept. Just in the vicinity of the Roman coliseum, there is a place where you have to climb the stairs to a height of some 60 feet or so to come to a door on a massive wall and will not realize what is inside until you step in and go past the tourist traps and cheap trinkets, photos etc for sale room and enter deeper after paying the obligatory entrance fee. This place is run by the monks of some order who collected bones for centuries and arranged them in an artistic way so all the thigh bones are placed together in a floral way and all the finger bones in another way and the skulls together. Some of these monks must have been sick to take pleasure in this sort of hobby but it is good for business and the yokels pay to see these morbid collections so they feel that probably their effort was worth it after all. I warn you that in such tourist traps, photography is strictly prohibited because they want you to buy their expensive slides and photos although they cannot keep an eye on everyone so I am sure some people try.

Paris is another city where they have vast underground tunnels under the very street you are walking on without any awareness of what lies underground. They say that hundreds of thousands of skeletons are piled up there since no one knows when and no one cares. The locals avoid them like plague but the gullible tourists are another matter. During the last war the French insurgents hid in these tunnels that the Germans did not dare to pursue because they did not know the extent of it but the locals knew. Now some drug addicts and weirdoes take shelter there because no one bothers them. They are also not afraid of ghosts that might still be lurking there.

Source : Google photo of a coffin in Ghana

Now let us go to Ghana and see what they do when someone croaks. They make very elaborate coffins that look like a coke bottle or a jalopy and paint them in cheerful colors. The makes and the models of these coffins come in numerous shapes and sizes and are only limited by the imagination of the coffin maker. Now why would anyone want to be buried in a coke bottle is another matter that is perhaps not worth writing about so I will move on.

Coming to Asia where the Hindus practice simple rituals have made funeral also simple. People in the community volunteer to carry the deceased in a quickly made bamboo stretcher to the cremation ground where after some bargaining with the undertaker they make a huge pile of wood to burn the body. It does not make any impression on them that millions of trees are felled for this purpose all over the country because it is the tradition.

Hindus do not value the body and take the Biblical words dust to dust seriously .The followers of Jesus could learn a thing or two from the practical Hindus who probably picked it up from the Romans or the Greeks. Good practices usually find their way into a culture if it saves them money.

But here in the Philippines it is a different matter. Here when someone dies, the hospital quickly informs the Funeral parlors that they have hit a jackpot so they waste no time in getting the body because there is a fierce competition among the parlors and a fight to get into the action is not unheard of. The hospitals also make a killing from the commission they earn from the funeral parlors. They are all commissioners here. They also hold the body until all the bills are paid so the bill meter keeps running at full speed if the relatives cannot come up with the money.

Once the deceased is in the hands of the funeral parlor people, they hold the relatives captive with their elaborate and expensive funerals packages. These packages include the rental of the hearse, cost of the coffin, balloons, band playing “I did it my way” ( Sinatra probably turns in his grave) or some such melody, guides to control the crowd or guide through the traffic, church services, embalming and many such sundry items to jack up the price of the “Puckage” as they call it. Now there are cremation services being offered as well in some places but the cost of the “puckage” still remains high because they have to charge for the electricity. ( the imported oil makes it expensive etc.)

I still do not know how poor people can afford to pay ransom like this because death spares no one.The cost of purchasing a piece of land in the cemetery can be very high but don’t worry. They take credit cards and you can pay off the bill over a long period of time including the interest of course.

In America the business of funeral is run by professionals who promise to take care of everything for you for a hefty fee that you can pay using your plastic card. They have fancy air conditioned waiting rooms with nice chairs where they play music while the body burns in an oven. Later they will offer you a cheap ceramic jar to bring the ashes home but here again it is a part of the package deal you can seldom opt out of. Those who prefer burial in a cemetery have nothing to worry about either. There too the parlor will arrange for an alcoholic old priest to say a few words that he has memorized by heart and delivers flawlessly because he has a lot of practice. He is not called a funeral priest for nothing.

So dying is a profitable business all around no matter how you cut it. But the Japanese and the Chinese have taken the business a step further being also a practical people. As you know Japan is a small rocky country for the most part so finding a grave site is harder than finding the hen’s tooth. Now they have built multistoried buildings in the heart of big cities everywhere that are called columbarium here in the Philippines but I do not know what they call in Japanese. There you have rows after neat rows on both sides of the alleys on every floor the niches where people keep the ashes in jars. The name plate and other info are printed on a plaque to identify the owner of the ashes. It is all done very professionally by well dressed men and women who take their jobs very seriously and charge a pretty penny or Yen for it.

This solves the problem of finding a field where they can bury people. They have taken a step further by building skyscrapers where on some floor you can play electronic golf and on other floors a columbarium or fancy shops selling Sony play stations and other stuff. It is all business after all.

The Chinese on the other hand make fancy grave stones carved with Chinese letters and painted in gold colors, embellished with a dragon or two to signify the wealth of the deceased. You just have to go to Hong Kong and visit some of these sites to know how lavish they can get. However, when it comes to lavishness, no one can beat the Mexican drug lords. There they start building their very fancy and elaborate mausoleums in marble and granite to make sure that they have a good place to lie dead in because they never know when the police will catch up with them to shorten their mortal lives.

If you go to their funerals, you will know who their associates are just like the mafia funerals in the US where the FBI people show up dressed as undertakers or gardeners but it may not be good for your health if you know what I mean. Mexican cemeteries are full of such elaborate mausoleums. These crooks perhaps visited Taj Mahal at some time in their lives or saw photos.

Now I come to the last part to discuss why posterity is so important to some people and why some people obsess with death so much. Among the Hindus death means just a transition to a new life somewhere else because of their belief in reincarnation. The body is discarded like old cloth and new clothes are put on meaning a new life somewhere so nothing remains of a person, not even the ashes that are thrown away in the Ganga river. A photo is hung on the wall for a while but that too disappears after a generation so no one knows who they were.

But in other cultures that are heavily influenced by the Christian faith, people practice elaborate rituals and pay for all the expenses. Then every year on the All Soul’s Day they gather in the cemeteries to clean the grave, paint it and put joss sticks and keep a watch for thieves who steal expensive bouquets of flowers to sell them somewhere else. Here in the Philippines this annual ritual often ends up in murder when someone tries to muscle out someone for a parking slot or over other simple matters.

So people obsess because their culture demands it, their tradition demands it and some people show off their wealth at the time of funeral. In other cultures they do not demand it so people keep it simple.

I really appreciate one thing about the Moslems. They say that in death everyone is equal so a Saudi King is buried in a simple wrap in a grave just like a pauper and the emperor of India Aurangjeb is buried by the roadside covered only by earth. They do not obsess with what happens after they are gone. May be that is something to think about seriously. I know that I do.

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Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.