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The Vacuum Issue 6 spacer Issue 6
Whose Body Is It Anyway?
by Ruth Jones
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The original premise for this article was to explore what people in Northern Ireland would choose for their funerals and how this might operate as a reflection of their social status. It transpires that Bill Drummond from the KLF foundation launched a website in Belfast called www.mydeath.net which opened a virtual space where people can plan their funerals to the last detail. So it seems that that purpose has already been served. In any case, the more I thought about the question of death and choice, it became apparent that whatever instructions you may leave for the disposal of your body, once you have slipped off this mortal coil, your 'remains' are at the mercy of your relatives, friends, enemies or the State. The dead have no legal rights.
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This conflict between the desires of the deceased and the will of those still living is aptly illustrated in the gothic novel Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson. Written in 1748 during an era when the penchant for representations of dead or dying beautiful young women was practically an obsession, the novel recounts how the charming rake Lovelace, unable to seduce the puritanical Clarissa, first drugs and then rapes her. Subsequently, Clarissa starves herself to death in order to avoid the few other compromising options available to her. Before dying, she minutely plans how her body should be viewed, most specifically that she should only be exposed to Lovelace's gaze in conjunction with a prepared text which reads:
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'Gay, cruel heart! behold here the remains of the once ruined, yet now happy Clarissa Harlowe! See what thou thyself must quickly be; and REPENT!'
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Clarissa, consciously or unconciously, encourages the use of her body as a christian memento mori, that is a representation designed specifically to encourage sinners to repent of their sins and turn to God before it is too late. Images such as these often combined the depiction of a young beautiful woman's body with the figure of death hovering in the background waiting to claim his victim. Lovelace, meanwhile has no intention of repenting his sins, and has other plans for her body. He plots to steal and embalm it so that it will never be out of his sight. His justification 'whose was she living? - whose is she dead but mine?' clearly demonstrates the cultural privileging of the power of the masculine gaze which commands unlimited possession over the surveyed feminine body.
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The unauthorised possession and display of dead bodies is not limited to literature. In the Ulster Museum in the Botanical Gardens, Belfast, the displayed Egyptian mummy, thought to be the remains of a young woman called Takabuti, the daughter of a priest of Ammon, has aroused curiosity and fascination since its unwrapping in 1842 at the Old Museum arts centre to an audience of 'about one hundred and thirty gentlemen'. A detailed account of the unwrapping appeared in the local press, including the findings of a phrenological expert who concluded that she was 'a person of much firmness and caution of character, and of a high degree of intellectual capacity, but little or no taste'. This last comment might lead to a little reflection on the lack of respect for the 'tastes' of differing cultural traditions, in particular that it was the tradition in Egypt at the time of her death for bodies to be embalmed, mummified, buried underground in a tomb and left to rest in peace.
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Whose Body Is It Anyway?
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Not all cultures insist that the body must be left in peace. Annually on 1st November, mexicans bring food and drink to graveyards and sing and dance over the graves of relatives in order to re-establish the bonds between the dead and the living. In Sicily until around 1850, the practice of embalming bodies and then displaying them in the crypt in niches held in upright positions with wire was the norm, if you were wealthy or had connections with the Church. A 'space' would be purchased prior to the death of the individual, who whilst visiting dead relatives, might also try out their niche for size. In the catacombs of the Capuchin crypt beneath Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome, the bones of 4000 monks are arranged in Baroque patterns on the ceilings. According to legend this was the work of one monk after the bones were disinterred and moved from their original burial ground to the new church. Features include a chandalier made from fibulai and tibiae and a clock with a surround of bones and vertibrae.
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The contemporary fascination with these practices might have something to do with the ever widening gap between a person's 'natural body' and what you might call their 'social body', represented by the way that they are remembered by the living. This might be recorded on their tombstone as an epitaph or in an obituary, commemoration portrait, or in some cases a biography. Whilst in most modern western cultures, the social body becomes a stand in for the absence of the physical body, embalmed bodies are auto-iconic, ie. they are a representation which consists of the thing itself. The social theorist and supporter of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) advocated the use of auto-iconic body monuments as a way to collapse the gap between the body and representations of the body and avoid the expense of funerals. He proposed that 'every man may be his own statue', however, in spite of his own extraordinary preserved body still on display at University College London, the idea never really caught on in the UK.
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Discrepancies between the 'natural body' and the 'social body' are also present in customs and history of burials in Northern Ireland. According toTom Hartley, (who annually conducts a tour of the Milltown and City Cemetries on the Falls Road during the West Belfast Festival), women are frequently written out of history. Regardless of wealth or social status, most gravestones merely describe the dead woman as the 'Loving Wife of...' their 'social body' is therefore only connected with their husband's 'social body'. One striking example in City Cemetery is Margaret Byers's gravestone, on which mention of her lifetime's work as a pioneer of progressive education for women in Northern Ireland is conspicuously absent. In addition, women who became martyrs for the republican cause are never acknowledged in this way on gravestones, in contrast to equivalent male republican graves.
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The question 'whose body is it?' became controversial within the context of Northern Ireland's political struggle in relation to the body of a 19 year old republican named Thomas Williams who was executed in 1942 for shooting an RUC man. Until capital punishment was abolished in 1965, the bodies of prisoners of the state executed for murder belonged to the State, who maintained the right to bury them in unmarked graves. Crumlin Rd jail was the site of this and a number of other executions between 1854 and 1962, and had a graveyard garden specifically for this purpose. Tom Williams's dying wish was to be buried in the republican plot in Milltown cemetery and a campaign to have his body moved from Crumlin Rd. jail was underway soon after the execution. The National Graves Association reserved a place for Williams at the County Antrim monument and took legal action against the government. Permission was finally granted to exhume his body in 1995, fifty three years after his death. Williams's remaining relatives would not allow him to be buried in the republican plot, instead he was buried with his grandmother about 100 metres away.
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Political struggles over the 'natural body' in order to control the nature of the 'social body' also featured after the death of Roger Casement, who was executed in Pentonville prison in England for his part in the Easter Rising. Casement's last expressed wish before he was hanged was that his mortal remains be buried in the old graveyard at Murlough Bay, Co. Antrim where he grew up. Both the British and the Irish governments refused to comply, perhaps fearing that his grave might become a too powerful icon in Northern Ireland. In 1965, he was buried instead in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
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The cases I have recounted here all involve conflict over bodily remains as a result of human action or endeavour, however ocassionally natural phenomena is responsible for the movement of bodies. Lord Edward Carson, the stauch opposer of Home Rule, was buried in the crypt of St. Anne's Cathedral after his death in 1935. When Lady Carson died in 1965, she had stipulated that her ashes be kept with her husband's body. Rumour has it that when the crypt was opened, his coffin could not be found. It is believed by many that it may have drifted away from the Cathedral underground in the fifty foot layer of silt which lies beneath the reclaimed land which makes up the entire Cathedral Quarter area.
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It is still possible to add your funeral requests to Bill Drummond's website, however, remember that the main purpose this may serve is to provide comfort for yourself. In a recent BBC programme, 'Walking with Cavemen', the presenter concluded that our Neaderthal ancestors were less evolved than us because they did not practice any funeral rites and left their dead exactly where they had died. Rather than providing evidence of their inferior evolutionary status, perhaps this is an indication that they simply did not share our modern anxiety about all things to do with death.
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Whose Body Is It Anyway?
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