I recently watched the first series of His Dark Materials, the television adaptation of a novel series by Philip Pullman. In an alternative reality world in which people have daemons (spirit animals), the ‘Gobblers’ kidnap a Gyptian boy Billy Costa. After many adventures the heroine, Lyra, tracks him down and he is found unconscious and unresponsve, forcibly separated from his daemon by Mrs Coulter at Bolvangar ( the Gobblers’ arctic base). They return him to his Gyptian family but, sadly, Billy dies. In a clear allusion to Gypsy tradition, Billy is cremated and the Gyptians, Lyra and their respective daemons mourn and then sing, encircling the makeshift pyre. Thus, Billy’s body burns in the unforgiving frozen north.
This joins the ranks of many fantasy cremation scenes portrayed on film and television., but deserves some specific observations.
Out of place, in an icy world, bereft of his daemon, dying too young, his cremation is a pivotal and sorrowful moment. The makeshift pyre is poor and small, and while implausible in modest scale, it is evocative in its paucity.
Another point of considerable interest is the portrayal of Billy’s mother as the chief mourner, taking the lead in the cremation of her young son, while her surviving (older son) stands to the front and the (largely) male Gyptians stand further away. Again, we see proximity to the pyre and acts of lighting as key moments signalling loss and affinity with the dead.
Almost exclusively, open-air cremation ceremonies are portrayed as sombre and quiet affairs, or dramatic and isolated acts with single mourners present. While tragic, Costa’s cremation, once the pyre is lit, is dominated by communal singing. As voices lift, the smoke ascends; together articulating the tragic passing of the boy and common aspirations for his afterlife destination.
As is usual, televisual and filmic cremations do not countenance post-cremation rituals. We are not shown if Billy’s ashes are collected and distributed or kept by the survivors. Still, in this brief, sombre scene, once again we see modern fantasies of open-air cremation drawing on ancient traditions and recent practices beyond normative Western death ways.