As a very young child I sometimes used to have these nightmares about dieing. The prospect of being put in a hole and then covered up was horrific, even if I was dead when they did it, and only the reassurance of my mother that she would make absolutely sure that I was not actually sleeping and was indeed dead, could placate me.
Not enough for me to actually go back to sleep as I would check often to make sure I was alive by opening my eyes until the point of exhaustion set in and then and only then would I drift back into the world of slumber.
Of course I was no different to many that go through the same phase of not really understanding the concept of death at an early age, but in earlier times that same fear was profound well into old age.
During the 18th and 19th centuries there developed a morbid fear of being buried alive, which lead to the invention of various devices with which would hopefully alert people to the fact. These included the safety coffin, where a bell was placed on top of the grave. One end of a rope was fixed to the bell and the other end placed in the hand of the deceased. If the poor unfortunate soul found themselves not to be dead after all they could ring the alarm. Other safety coffins involved elaborate contraptions of tubes and mirrors which allowed gravediggers to look into coffins for signs of life, or putrefaction.
Probably the custom had originated when after some graves being opened, scratch marks that showed some poor wretch had woken only to find they had been interned in the ground prematurely.
WOODSTOCK, Ontario, Jan. 18. — Recently a girl named Collins died here, as it was supposed, very suddenly. A day or two ago the body was exhumed, prior to its removal to another burial place, when the discovery was made that the girl had been buried alive. Her shroud was torn into shreds, her knees were drawn up to her chin, one of her arms was twisted under her head, and her features bore evidence of dreadful torture.
So is the obsession of life and death that is so pronounced in humans that some in history have gone to some great lengths to make sure of death.
Burial at sea, a simple yet most impressive and dignified ceremony, is the most natural means of disposing of a body from a ship at sea. It is still the custom to sew the body into a hammock or other piece of canvass with heavy weights, formerly several cannonballs, at the feet to compensate the tendency of a partly decomposed body (as would be the case in the tropics) to float. To satisfy superstition, or to ensure that the body is actually dead, the last stitch of the sailmaker’s needle is through the nose.
And with others there was an alternative reason to be sure of death.
The story of how the good housewife, broken by hunger and imprisonment, was transformed gradually into a shriveled, decrepit hag, despised and shunned by her neighbors, and how she was finally vindicated of the charge of witchcraft by 300 descendants of her neighbors at the the annual town meeting in Hampton on March 8, 1938, is a chapter in the history of New England. Goody was tried and convicted in 1656 — 36 years before the witchcraft cases in Salem, Massachusetts — on a charge of putting a fatal curse on her neighbors’ cattle. A stake was driven through her heart after her death, many years later, to prevent her body being carried away by the devil.
On the other hand tributes to the dead and what faced them ahead are legend. The idea of preparing a grave with all the finery that might be needed in the afterlife gave many a grave robber a job for life.
The 5th dynasty (Old Kingdom) which saw the construction of more modest pyramids contained the first decorations. These decorations took the form of hieroglyphic writings – known as the Pyramid Texts – which provide guidelines and instructions on how to ensure safe voyage through the nether world and the eternal life thereafter.
The Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses are the most significant archeological excavations of the 20th century. Work is ongoing at this site, which is around 1.5 kilometers east of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum in Lintong, Xian, Shaanxi Province. It is a sight not to be missed by any visitor to China.
Of course we are looking at the elite when buried, after all not everyone could have a TerraCotta army of a thousand warriors buried with them. But even so the paupers in life often had jewelry trinkets and memento of life to carry with them to their death.
Fear of death being the norm, and then the fear of not being dead when buried to a celebration of the future worlds that you will soon encounter. Death and an afterlife is a widely held belief from all parts of the world.
The Vikings believed that after death they would join their gods in an afterlife much like the world we live in. In the afterlife they would need the same type of things they needed in this life so they took them with them into their graves.
Men generally took their weapons and the tools of their trade while women were buried with domestic equipment and their jewelery. Some burials were made in boats or even ships.
Women taking the comforts of home associated with the more feminine labors.
For some years I have had a morbid curiosity about death. Of course I want to believe in the afterlife, and when mother passed, I would often find a period of seclusion where I could ‘talk’ to her. And no less when my father died, the conversations actually manifested themselves to where I was almost getting answers.
To this day and many years after the passing of my parents, in times of pressure mostly I still talk to them as if they were actually next to me. In doing so I feel an uneasy, but comfortable feeling that assures me they are listening.
I have had instances of hearing my name being called and on looking up no one there but the voice being no more than three feet away. On occasion I have felt a cloth, like a skirt brush over my skin as when a woman passes. In one episode I remember that I can hear a person moving and humming to herself, and assuming it was my wife, took very little notice as I thought she was going about normal business, only to hear her car approach and at that instance the realization dawns that there is an unidentified person I had heard moving about for around 45 mins. But on investigation, no one there.
When I satisfy myself that I am not sufficiently insane to require committing, I examine all avenues of belief in an afterlife and the the traditions are long and common to all countries and all continents, from Incas to Pharaohs , indigenous Indians to Eskimos and even cavemen, who believe with a passion that they will one day meet there loved ones in some galactic garden that enables the loved ones to be joined with them once again.
What all of us find confusing is that there is absolutely no evidence to prove that these customs and traditions are valid in any shape or form, but to query, even realists such as myself, who really know better, you get a not very scientific response of they ‘KNOW and Feel” it is so. No attempt to justify and no inclination to want to justify as if our conviction cannot be shaken merely on the basis of theoretical scientific studying.
This is not a passing phase and one deep rooted in history to be the basis for cultivating whole societies, and this incredible belief of the afterlife dominates not only how some live but also how some die. From sebukku to being a walking bomb in the belief that what you are about to do will grantee your place in the afterlife.
This author is now a skeptic, but would not dare question the absolute existence of an afterlife because the gods that control your spirit may be listening, and an Irish friend once told me it is really like a lucky horseshoe……”It works even if you don’t believe”
What is clear is that civilization needs the premise of life after death to hold on to, when loved ones are taken prematurely, from a child or a spouse that you have spent the better portion of life with. The only way to bear the sorrow you feel at not seeing them again is to console yourself that you will, a self hypnosis that maybe the only way to stop you joining them on their demise……….