Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A measure of civilisation ?

Until recently I had always thought that funerals were nonsense. Having no religious belief I felt that my corpse could just as meaningfully be quietly disposed of at the nearest council incinerator or land-fill. But then when my mum died this summer I found her funeral very important. Although a painful day by the end of it I had got some sort of - and I apologise for the hideous use of psycho-babble - 'closure'.

My archaelogoical studies tell me that funerary practices are often the defining part of a culture - such as the beaker people. Of course sometimes that's just lazy-thinking because graves and grave goods are  the only tangible evidence left behid to speculate over. But attitudes to death and its rituals are a pretty good indicator of the underlying nature of a society. Think of the transition around the European Neolithic period from the communal 'houses of the dead' to the individual graves and how this mirrors the transition to a 'land-owning' economy with hierachies and elites.

All of which is a long-winded preamble to my depression at the news that 'pauper's  funerals' are on an alarming increase.  This Victorian concept applies to people who die without even the assets to cover their funeral expenses - and therefore have them provided by the local authority. It's often said that an indicator of civilisation is how a society treats its young and old -  and you might as now well add how it treat its dead. It makes me wonder how future archaeologist's will characterize our society.

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