Monday, February 18, 2008

Respecting the Dead

Among the truly stupid things I remember doing in high school was the afternoon that I and a small group of bored, Byron-lite theatre students decided to go visit a mausoleum.

Dressed as vampires.

I said it was stupid.

Some of us only went in black clothing wearing terrible-tasting fangs and crazed expressions. At least one of us went for the full Bela Lugosi effect, with a flowing cape, pale white face paint, large white fangs over individual canines, and that trickle of blood near the corner of his mouth.

And we marched up and down the halls of the mausoleum as if we owned the place, as if the whole thing was some kind of monument to the characters we were playing, ignoring the obvious fact that vampires visiting mausoleums on a bright spring day would doubtless have burst into flames between the parking lot and entrance. Ultimately, one of the attendants chased us down and threw us out, telling us we should be ashamed of ourselves for our lack of respect for the dead.

Think about that phrase: "Respect For The Dead."

It's the idea that simply by finishing your natural term of conscious existence you will have earned a sort of nebulous admiration from those of us who remain living. We are asked to show reverence for one's state of death even though it is in fact nothing special, even though it is the one thing that unites every living creature that has ever existed on this planet. We go to funerals that overflow with silence, because noise would be disrespectful, apparently, to the one person in the room for whom noise no longer means anything.

I'm not excusing the behavior of myself and my youthful pre-goth peers. The mausoleum staff had every right to throw us out for making a nuisance of ourselves. My point is that the attendant wasn't demanding that we show more respect to the dead, he was asking that we show more respect to the living, to the actual grief felt by the people who were there to wade in the memories of their loved opposed to those who just showed up to clown around in bloodsucker clothing.

That's what he was asking, but he said we should Respect the Dead.

Why? Why is this phrase so prevalent? Why can't we agree that showing some reverence for a living being's emotional turmoil is on its own a reasonable request? Why drag the dead into it?

Is it an attempt to use fear as a disciplinary tactic--to threaten the offenders with retribution by restless spirits--because merely pointing out the pain you cause others isn't as effective a declaration? Is it in fact a personal, internal fear, that the disturbances caused by others will lead to these same spirits going after you?

A number of famous stories and films have been made on the subject of disturbing the sleep of the dead and the consequences thereof. I can't think of even one story as famous in which characters only disturb the grim solace of the bereaved living and suffer as a result.

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