This is something that I think is absolutely fascinating and I’ve been hoarding for YEARS to go into the book. Now that I’m actually writing the book, there isn’t a place for it. One has to kill their darlings and whatnot. So I’m going to share it now.
To the naked eye, ants deal with their dead much like humans. When a member of the colony dies, the carcass will lie where it fell for a period of roughly two days. In the fashion of a wake, this time period presumably gives the other ants time to pay their respects to their fallen comrade. After two days, the living ants take the dead ant to an ant graveyard in a respectful procession, honoring the good work it performed for the colony.
Well, not quite. The carcass does lie there for two days and it is carted off to a pile of dead ants. But this isn’t done out of social obligations or as a healing ritual to soften the loss. As Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson discovered, in reality, the dead ant must lay there for two days because the other ants simply don’t realize it is dead.
Two days after death, the tiny ant corpse begins emitting a chemical called oleic acid. To an ant, the smell of oleic acid equals death. The experience of death is not a sense of loss, not a dead body, not an ascent to ant afterlife- it is simply oleic acid. As soon as the living ants smell the oleic acid smell, they spring into action, carrying the tiny decaying intruder out of their midst and dumping it into the pile.
Even more interesting, Wilson discovered that if you give a live ant a bath in oleic acid, it is as good as dead to the other ants. The still alive (but oleic acid covered) ant is carried off to the dead ant pile, trying to clean itself, flailing around, perhaps screaming “um, hey guys, I’m fine,” to no avail. If you smell like a corpse, sorry little buddy, you’re a corpse. Into the pile with you.
This Chilean Deathstination comes from Abigail Carney, a student at Roger Williams University who’s currently studying abroad in Santiago.
Today, I would like to invite you to join me in a cadaverous cruise through South America’s second largest cemetery, Cementerio General de Santiago in Santiago, Chile. This hallowed ground, first consecrated in 1820, is the final resting place for more than two million sets of human remains, including all but two of Chile’s presidents. The cemetery is massive, sprawling over 210 acres of land like a small city of the dead with streets and avenues and lots of trees.
Cemeteries are fascinating not only because they are full of dead people but also because of their role in society as an archive. In cemeteries we don’t just store dead people, we catalog them. We carve their names and dates in stone to preserve them for generations to come, and in doing so, we showcase our culture in the ways in which we memorialize our dead. There are three burial options at the Cementerio General, all of which can be adapted for cremated remains as well. Chile was rated eighth in the world for inequitably distributed wealth and poor economic mobility, and the level at which you entered the world has everything to do with where you will end up after you exit.
Now, if you’re really someone in Santiago your family will have an above-ground mausoleum. These are small, freestanding buildings of stone ranging from the size of a modest garden shed to a medium-size cottage. Mausoleums in the Cementerio General come in all sorts of styles and flavors, from minimalistic white marble to elaborate Egyptian-themed tombs. Universally, they all tend to have doors of wrought metal with a stained glass piece on the back wall that shines through when the sun falls behind it. The effect is really gorgeous and an excellent example of how families show off their wealth while providing a secure resting place for their dead.
If you are a family of more modest means but still comfortably within the middle- to upper middle-class you most likely will choose to put your dearly departed to rest in a crypt. Above ground is a large tombstone with the family name. Stairs lead below ground to bookshelf-like niches for caskets. These are sealed with a cement slab after an interment, and typically there is a metal gate blocking access from the stairs to the niches for security. This private spot also allows the family to be physically close to their loved ones, separated in some cases by only by cement and casket.
Back above ground are the wall niches. This is a more affordable permanent option for both the working class and the lower class; they can be rented for a period of 5 or 10 years. There are literally levels upon levels of these niches, into which a casketed corpse is slid, feet first, and then sealed and capped with a plaque bearing the deceased’s name and date of death. The date of birth isn’t always included.
Whether abuelita is laid to rest in an elaborate mausoleum, a modest family crypt, or a humble wall niche, one universal element throughout the cemetery is the obvious care and love expressed through the upkeep of the tombs as well as the offerings left behind. I saw pinwheels, flowers, toys, sweets, candles, figurines, letters, photographs, poems etched in stone, wreaths, personal effects, and bottles of wine, just to name a few. The diversity of items reflects the diversity of the dead and the families who remember them. One might draw the conclusion that death is something that is denied in Latin American culture; the configuration of the interment options both protects the dead and facilitates frequent visits by families, and gifts are often left for the dead. Actually, this is only one side of the paradox of death in Latin American culture.
On the one hand, death is readily accepted as inevitable and there is no attempt to disguise death from children. On the other hand, the dead are thought of as still present in the world of the living, hence the presents and offerings.
A very interesting product of this dual mentality is the animita, which is a shrine built to placate the soul of someone who died an unnatural death, such as from an accident or act of violence. The animita is usually located at the site of the death, and people who never knew the person in life will leave offerings, pray, and ask favors of the dead person.
There are many animitas in the Cementerio, but one of the most interesting is the story behind that of “La Novia.” Legend says she was playing with her friends in the cemetery when she tripped on some stairs and died. Another version of her story says she was left at the altar on her wedding day and died of heartbreak. The reality is that Orlita “La Novia” Romero Gómez died of a heart attack on her 17th birthday. Her mother was so distraught that she had her embalmed and placed in a glass casket. Legend has it that every Sunday she would visit the family mausoleum to brush her deceased daughter’s hair, but this is not true. The mother has since died and time has not been kind to La Novia, so her casket is now hidden behind a velvet curtain. The front glass of the door has cracked, and now teenagers in love will write the names of their crushes on slips of paper and slip them through so that La Novia might bless them with romance. When La Novia grants their wishes the students will often tie their school uniform tie to the door and write a message on the wall of the mausoleum.
In the places where we lay our dead to rest our culture lives on stronger than ever. Even the dearly departed cannot escape the socioeconomic stratification that they experienced in life. The Cementerio General represents a synthesis of two seemingly opposing Latin American attitudes about death: death as an inevitable end to the human cycle and death as a means to an omnipresent, saint-like state of being. If you should find yourself in Santiago, Chile I highly recommend paying the Cementerio General a visit.
Jessica O’Neill is a writer living in Kathmandu, Nepal. This piece first appeared on her blog Madness & Beauty.
Last night I was less than 100 metres from a massive explosion in Thamel, the main tourist district in Kathmandu. It triggered a fire that raged all night, and I (barely) slept to the sounds of sirens singing in the streets.
Danger, like, real life actual danger, is a strange thing. It’s a slow, confusing state during which your brain has to process all of the new information it is receiving, and then it has to figure out which of the appropriate steps it has to take to make you not die.
I had a conversation with my friend Loren yesterday. He is about to embark on a long traveling journey (and we are going to meet in Bangkok), and the advice I gave him was basically, “if you’re not scared, you are doing something wrong. You need to be scared. It’s how your lizard brain will make sure you won’t die.”
And when you boil it all down, that is all ANY of us are any good at: not dying. If you are here and reading this blog in your pajamas, eatin’ Cheetos (or whatever snack you enjoy) thinking about rent and TV shows and the price of oil, well: good for you. You are EXCELLENT at the one thing you need to be good at doing: not dying. That can change at any minute, but right now you are doing a great job. Kudos.
Sometimes we pass our time not dying in a way that feels really calm and mundane. We live our lives and pay our bills and ride the bus and tuck our children into their beds and we think that we are safe. But really, we don’t even realize that we are walking through a minefield of constant terror and chances for death.
Your heart can literally explode in your chest. Your house can catch fire and you can be burnt to death in the time that it takes for you to wake up and realize what is going on. A driver can have one too many Tom Collins and drive straight into you as you cross the street. You are never “safe,” my friends. Never. Safe is not a thing.
I don’t mean to sound all Fox News and make you worry about scary foreign men bursting into your apartment and raping your pets (“A New Terrier Terror Strikes the Nation!!!”), but come on. We lull ourselves into complacency that every single moment we are alive is not scary as shit. IT IS. And guess what — you are good at navigating the fear. You have to be.
People say, “Jess, aren’t you scared to travel the world alone?” The answer is YES. Of course I fucking am. I’m not an idiot — bad stuff happens here in Nepal, but it can also happen to you while you are sitting on your couch in Edmonton or Topeka. Your ceiling could cave in or a swarm of bees could attack you or you have stroke — and we all know that but we just pretend otherwise. Like my mum always says, “You are going to die somewhere, so it might as well be somewhere fucking interesting.”
Last night I was sitting in a pub in Thamel with Matthew Rose and Dan Pritchard, participating in a quiz (like I do every week) when a huge explosion rocked the bar. At first we thought it was a bomb, and then someone said it was just a single tank of cooking propane bursting and so we nearly continued the quiz. It wasn’t until the screams and shouts from the street alerted us that something a lot bigger had happened.
Twelve gas tanks (like these ones) exploded at Faces nightclub and the entire center of Thamel was on fire, and the bar in which I was sitting was less than 100 metres away from where it started. But it was strange — it was like we didn’t know exactly how to gauge the danger, like we didn’t realize it was a huge problem. I continued texting the boy, even. Time slowed down, and it was only when we stepped outside to see a wall of flames approaching did we realize that it was indeed time to leave, and that is when our lizard brains kicked in and made us not die. We went the other direction.
That’s all you have to do. Don’t die. And when you do – because you will — and it is in an exotic locale, it’s no more shocking than if you were in your bed, surrounded by fat grandchildren. It’s death. It is always a possibility. Pretending that it isn’t is unhealthy and dishonest. Pretending that it isn’t means that you sleepwalk through life and never appreciate how wonderful and treacherous it really is. Pretending that it isn’t means that when death does come — and it will — you’ll be so unprepared that you’ll try to ignore even the very experience of dying. It’s one of the most important things that will ever happen to you, so what a spectacular waste.
Today Thamel is in ruins. There are only 7 firetrucks in the entire Kathmandu valley and they all responded, but the fire blazed through the night. One of the most iconic bookstores in Asia, Pilgrims, is gone. Countless people lost their livelihoods; thankfully it seems that no one lost their lives. But life is fleeting, and life is fragile.
I’m going to finish this up with a direct quote from something I wrote to Loren yesterday:
“You made this choice to travel, this amazing choice that like, an eeeenth of the population makes and you know why they don’t make it? BECAUSE IT IS TERRIFYING. And that is so, so fucking beautiful.”
Take care. Don’t die. You’re already good at that.
Caleb Wilde is a sixth-generation licensed funeral director and embalmer in Pennsylvania. You wouldn’t think we’d get along, what with all my wacky first-generation West Coast alternative funeral ideas. But Caleb is sufficiently weird, sufficiently open to an evolving death industry, and a real professional. You can find his website here, and follow him on Twitter.
Thinking about counterfactuals can produce maddening entertainment, especially when it comes to one’s own personal existence.
What happens if my dad didn’t spill that Coca-Cola on my mother some 40 years ago on their first date? Was that the attachment trigger that eventually produced me?
Would I exist if Columbus hadn’t sailed the ocean blue in 1492?
If cats were never domesticated, would the Internet even exist?
These. Unanswerable. All.
I do know one thing: my present existence is indebted to John Wilkes Booth.
Johnny B. and me
I’m the love child of a Romeo and Juliet-type romance. My dad’s family owned one funeral home and my mother’s family owned the other funeral home across town. Dad was the fifth-generation funeral director on the Wilde side and mom would’ve been the fourth generation on the Brown side.
With my progenitors overexposure to embalming fluid, I used to think I’d develop some genetically altered mutant power. Like a psychic embalming power that enabled me to embalm my enemies through my mind energy. Think Professor X with embalming fluid.As an adult, I realize that instead of a mutant power I’ll probably just receive an early case of cancer.
Before Booth killed Lincoln, the first generation of Wildes (we emigrated from England) maintained a small “cabinet shop,” which built caskets, dining room tables, beds and the occasional wooden dildo. We’d help the family prepare the deceased and then let them finish the course of funeralization. It was – way back in the 1850s – very much a natural burial. The ones who took care of the deceased in life were also able to do so in death.
After Lincoln’s assassination, his embalmed corpse was paraded by train throughout the states, making stops in 12 major cities, where his body was put on display for public viewing; and passing through a total of 444 communities. A bereaved nation found an outlet for their grief, and their psyche bonded to this newfangled process called embalming. Perhaps there’s no stronger bond than a grief bond; and, whether rational or not, this bond to embalming soon created the American way of death.
The Lincoln Funeral Engine
With the industrialization of furniture making, and the new demand for embalming, we adapted to the market and became full-time undertakers. By 1898, the demand produced a “funeral school” in nearby Philadelphia. My great grandfather enrolled in 1910, and by 1912 we were charging $5.00 for pumping formaldehyde through the arterial system of our dead customers.
Some casket snapshots from a 1910 casket catalog that we still have in our possession.
We moved our small business to a larger town to the east and operated out of a row home. We’d go to the deceased’s house to embalm, build the deceased a casket and help direct the ensuing home funeral.
This is the gravity embalmer that we would have used when embalming the deceased at their home.
In 1928, we bought a large home and we began to offer “our” home for funerals, thus relieving families of “sad associations” during the funeral ceremonies. We advertised “Homelike Surroundings – No Charge for Use of Home.”
And here I am, the sixth generation of licensed Wilde funeral directors, still working in the same home we purchased in 1928. Once a fledgling cabinetry shop, we are now a very small part of a 20-billion-dollar national industry.
Back to counterfactuals.
What would funerals look like if John Wilkes Booth had missed?
Would the “traditional American funeral” be the entrenched tradition?
Would we need the clarion call of the Order of the Good Death?
If she wasn’t shrouding bodies, would Caitlin be shrouding … cats? Oh … wait … yes, she does shroud felines.
I probably wouldn’t exist without John Wilkes Booth; but that’s okay, I wouldn’t know the difference. Perhaps, though, we wouldn’t have industrialized death. Perhaps we’d have a better, more comfortable relationship with dying and death. Perhaps there’d be no need for the death “professionals.” Perhaps we’d be more holistic people, having a better perspective on death and a better appreciation for life.
But reality is what it is and those counterfactuals don’t exist. I’m here. You’re here. And although the American way of death is waning, it’s here too, depriving us — to one degree or another — of the life to be found in death and dying.
Thanks to you, John Wilkes Booth, we’re still fighting the effects of the Civil War.
So here’s a thing: Push the little “CC” closed captioning button at the bottom of any YouTube video and hilarity ensues. WHY, WHY YouTube? I mean, closed captioning, yes, obviously important. But if it’s gonna be all Nazis and steel industry I assume most of our hearing impaired viewers would have a better success rate reading lips?
Thanks to Luke Miller for pointing this out to me.