Apr. 26th, 2017

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A long, long time ago, I read about steppe nomad sky burials and was entranced. I was particularly fascinated by the idea of a body, once deceased, being seen as a resource to feed something else. Carrion birds in this case -- Strangers in a Strange Land this is not. Tibetan Buddhism considers the deceased body at face value, in that the person is gone and what is left is empty flesh. Steppe geography, with its flat, generally treeless landscape and undiggable bedrock, makes sky burials a practical choice. While in some places the burial may have been no more than simply leaving a body exposed to the elements in a high place, Tibetan burials take a more involved approach. Designated undertakers dismembered and prepare the flesh for waiting vultures, a job that from my understanding is undertaken with the same practicality and spirit as a seasonal butchering. This idea fascinated me most of all. The occupation of undertaking in every culture is intimately preparing the dead for the afterlife, spiritual and physical. How we prepare the dead, in other words, says a lot about how we grieve.

In the Taoist and Christian funerals I saw growing up, the body was preserved so that it could lie in state and be remembered. I understood this as a part of the grieving process. The body was chilled and/or embalmed to give the family time to issue an obituary in the newspapers, which allowed for distant mourners to pay their respects. Islamic funerals are markedly briefer affairs, as the body is ideally buried the dawn after death. This is most likely a holdover from the religion's desert origins and emphasis on private cleanliness. That always seemed eminently sensible to me as it saved on the expense of prolonging a funeral while being resource efficient. Before burial, the corpse would usually be washed by relatives (women for female dead, men for male dead) or an elder designated with this task, and forms the most intimate part of the grieving process.

Unlike Taoist and Christian funerals, Muslim corpses are buried usually wrapped in a simple cloth and not coffins. A coffin or similar item might be used to transport the corpse to the grave site (which seemed particularly true if the deceased was someone wealthy or important), but the general idea was that the flesh had to touch the earth. When you think about it, this makes the decomposition process cleaner, as there is no preservative element between spaces. In all these cultures, remembering the dead was an involved process with vigils, prayer sessions and large family gatherings. Once it was time for the experts to finish the cycle, i.e. gravediggers or crematoriums, the family washes its hands of the body. A funny thing about having official burial grounds, a staple of urban planning, is that by concentrating bodies in otherwise unused land, we are also concentrating a vital source of soil revitalisation in a place where it is most underused. Death in the natural landscape, placed randomly, redistributes what is left of us to continue the cycle of life. A dead body isn't technically dead. Part of the reason we consider the hygienic disposal of our dead at all is because corpses teem with life, from the bacteria that eats us from the inside to the illnesses that may spread from improper disposal. Some modern cemeteries try to balance this as part of their marketing, turning grave sites into a tree grove for example. Victorian cemeteries were designed to be used as parks in broad daylight, so fearing the cemetery or even considering it a bleak place clearly is more about our current social mores than it is based on the reality of death. Butchering bodies for carrion takes the reality of steppe geography and its most prominent recyclers, carrion birds, as a means to an end.

For The Bone Beathers, I wanted to play with the idea of the lonely gatekeeper to the afterlife at the top. It combines a longstanding interest in ancient step archaeology and the idea, the 'honour', of being that designated person, the elder whose job it is to care for the dead. People don't always choose their occupations. What if someone was compelled upon to join a family of undertakers? Division of labour in nomad herding cultures tends to be clear cut, with men travelling and trading, women milking and responsible for food production, while children, unmarried or childless singles tend the livestock. A certain egalitarianism existed in ancient societies like the Scythians (themselves a collection of various steppe peoples the Greek lumped together), where women led tribes in peace and war, and fought alongside their men. The Greeks rather hilariously assumed Scythians were all-female because men and women dressed alike. The bow, the great equaliser, meant that women and children could take up the defense of a camp, or shoot at oncoming armies from horseback. Modern horse-herding peoples, such as the Mongols, still retain some of these values. Yak and sheep-herding nomads appeared to have different norms (being more pastoral than war-like), although all share a natural independence and loyalty to family arising from mutual dependence in a harsh environment. I tried to get a sense of that across, the sense of smallness in an incredibly vast landscape, but paradoxically, the freedom to be lost in that landscape. Ultimately, the story ends on one of my favourite subjects, which is how removing a cog from an assumed social system collapses the tower. And murder. Because murder makes everything better.

The Bone Beaters is slated to appear in the May 2017 issue of The Dark.


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