As a mortuary archaeologist, I often think about dying, mortuary practice and the significance of the dead as a social and religious phenomena in the past. I try not to dwell on my own mortality too much, but sometimes I think it helps to imagine being the dead body during past funerals. It can be an important dimension of interpreting past mortuary practice. It might also be a strategy for communicating mortuary archaeological interpretations to both academic and public audiences. It might be somewhat uncanny and morbid, but thinking about past mortuary practice from the perspective of the corpse is a legitimate interpretative exercise. Here’s why.
Unless we imagine past societies were ridden with aetheists who somehow apprehended scientific biochemical processes associated with death that baffle most people today, the survivors may very well have given careful consideration to the cadaver as an ongoing vehicle for the physical and spiritual identity of the deceased. The body is often a principal focus of the funeral through its treatment, transportation and transformation. Hence their location, presence, posture and accompanying substances, materials and artefacts, structures and architecture was not considered as ‘disposal’, but negotiating ongoing relationships with the dead person, transformed through multiple stages of funerary obsequies. Further still, their positioning and posturing affected their perceived identities.
This is certainly true of the Middle Ages when the dead and the living were part of a complex journey during death rituals. Hence, this perspective is useful for thinking about, among other things, medieval sarcophagi. These were not only containers for the body, thus facilitating the transformation of the body. Moreover, they were a technology for protecting and posturing the body so as to face and look upwards during the cadaver’s decomposition and commemoration by the survivors. Like effigy tombs of the 13th to 15th centuries, the sarcophagi maintained the postured relationship between the body and their anticipated destination in Heaven.
Hence, when I went to see the famous rock-cut graves at Heysham, Lancashire, a few years back, I couldn’t resist trying out a tomb for size. I didn’t fully anticipate the result and I was simply doing it for a laugh at first.
The rock-cut tombs at Heysham are imprecisely dated, but they are part of a broader trend in medieval mortuary practice of cists and sarcophagi as discussed here and here, as well as here. The niche for the head often ensures the cadaver looks upwards. The shape of the sarcphagi implies the human form and its anatomical integrity, even if it comes to acquire multiple successive occupants. At Heysham, there are sockets for (presumably) grave-markers, acting as tangible links from the grave up into the air, making the location memorable after burial.
There, looking up at the sky, I unwittingly took on the perspective of the cadaver…
Again, let me repeat, I’m not trying to be weird or disrespectful to the fragile traces of the past or evoke some ghostly fantasy about the dead people who once corporeally inhabited this spot. Equally, I don’t wish death upon myself or to fantasise about being dead. Still, my behaviour, intended partly in humour, gave me a sense of appreciation of the kinetic and postured situation of the cadaver in the Christian Middle Ages at this particular heritage site.
More broadly, when archaeologists think of graves, they often regard ‘burials’ as about digging down, looking down, placing things down: the living choreographing the commemoration of the dead into the subterranean. Lying there, looking up at the sky, one can easily appreciate a different view. Sarcophagi, cists and rock-cut graves postured the dead in relation to the other graves within the cemetery. Simultaneously, they installed them in relation to the living world above and around. Further still, they position the corpse(s) and thus skeleton(s) in relation to aerial and spiritual realms.