This display case of animal bones was identified, sorted and created by my daughter for the Theodore Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary in Oyster Bay, NY, when she was a volunteer there about a year ago.
“I can’t wait for my favorite mortician’s second book to come out.” This is what my daughter said after I showed her an article in today’s NY Times about an Iceman, whose cause of death has been a mystery until now. In about 3300 B.C this person’s remains were found near the crest of the Otztal Alps in northern Italy. I thought I’d found a new mummy for her to be excited about, but she cast a glance at the photo and said, “Oh, that’s Otzi!”
I was amazed, but I shouldn’t have been because my daughter has been fascinated with death, burial rituals, morticians’ practices, mummies, bog people and all things morbid for as long as I can remember. Today I decided to briefly interview her for my Slice.
Me: When would you say your fascination with all the above began?
Her response: I guess I always had a fascination with animal skeletons. I think it all started in college when I was studying physical anthropology and the osteoarchaeology of humans and animals.
Me: How did that lead to your fascination with human burial rituals?
I loved sitting in the lab after the dig and sorting through the bones.
My fascination with bones then led to reading about funerary rituals: the weirder, the better. When I visited the West Coast of Ireland last fall, I was excited about visiting the Museum of Natural History in Dublin and getting to see the “bog people” who were so well preserved in the peat bogs.
Me: I remember how excited you were when you first learned about Caitlin Doughty, a new-age mortician at the forefront of the death-positive movement. You read her first book: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes/And Other Lessons from the Crematory and haven’t stopped talking about it since. What was it about her that fascinated you?
Her response: I was fascinated by her interest in green burials which I’d heard about but hadn’t explored on my own. I began reading about green burials, and that somehow led to my interest in unique funerary rituals. And then I started my quest to find the weirdest and wildest burial rituals throughout the world.
Me: Was that when you told me about the people in Indonesia who dig up their ancestors?
Her response: Yes, they dig them up every three years and dress them in new clothing and parade them around the village. The whole study of the bones and taxidermy then led to my fascination with corporeal preservations.
Me: Can you explain what that means?
Her response: Throughout the world different cultures have some pretty extreme ways of preserving bodies. For example, Sokushinbutsu is the ancient art of self-mummification practiced by a very specific sect of Japanese monks between the 11th and 19th centuries. It’s a process that takes 3000 days, or ten years. The person must eat a very specific diet to begin the process of shedding all body weight and dehydration. While doing this they drink a special tea made from the bark of the Urushi tree, also known as the Japanese varnish tree. At the end of the 3000 days they crawl into a tomb which is sealed except for a breathing tube which allows them to breathe and they are given a bell which they ring every day until they die. When the bell stops ringing, the tomb is then completely sealed.
My favorite part of the whole process is that if it fails and your body is not mummified, you are not considered a holy Buddha.
For the sake of brevity, that ends our conversation for today. But you can see that I’ve raised a rather unusual daughter. And just for the record, she is one of the most life-loving, funny, warm-hearted people I have ever known. And she hardly ever wears black!