12 January 2008

Bury Me Where This Arrow Falls...

A few hours ago, when reading an article about Edmund Hillary in today's New York Times, I was struck by this passage:
And while Sir Edmund may have been carving out a pioneering path, look what was left in the wake of his achievement. Expeditions have been undertaken just to remove the accumulated detritus on the slopes: hundreds of oxygen containers, tons of tents, cans, crampons and waste. The bodies of the more than 100 dead climbers have not been removed; they are too heavy to carry down.
This doesn't necessarily mean that they were just left out in the open, of course; George Mallory's, for example, missing from 1924 and only discovered in 1999, was buried where it was found at a height of 8,155 metres. Not that leaving the bodies to the mercy of the birds would have been entirely alien to the region, curiously enough. Sky burial used to be a common practice just across the border in Tibet, and though it was banned when the Chinese took over the area, it seems to be making a small but real comeback. It often requires corpses to be dismembered and the remains mixed with grain to attract raptors to ensure that the entire body is disposed of.

I know, it sounds ghoulish, but a lack of soil and fuel in the area rather precludes the locals from interring or cremating their dead. I first heard of it years ago in Neil Gaiman's wonderful Sandman comic, where a character named Petrefax, an apprentice in the necropolis Litharge, details the five approved methods of bodily disposal, with their variants:

Joanna Sugden had a piece in the Times yesterday where she described ten unusual ways of bodily disposal. It's certainly worth a read, though I'm not sure I'd agree with what she says about bog bodies. Anyway, although 'burial' might seem an odd choice of word for some of these practices, nearly all of them are indeed forms of burial; the word 'burial' derives from the Old English 'birgan', meaning 'to conceal, or hide away'.

Plastination and cryonics are of course peculiarly modern solutions to the problem, but for me the most fascination was aerial sepulture, also known as tree or platform burial, where bodies would be wrapped in shrouds or sometimes placed in baskets, boxes, or canoes, which were then fastened onto the tops of trees or scaffolds. These used to be quite common in Siberia and among such North American peoples as the Yangtonais and the Dakota Sioux.

More tomorrow at The Thirsty Gargoyle's House of Useless Trivia.

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