Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Graves in air

The Athanasius Kircher Society Blog is a pretty reliable source of though-provoking and unpretentious content. They currently link to this collection of Victorian post-mortem photography, which has been quietly unsettling me all day.

The Victorian attitude to death has been written about fairly extensively, and I'm sure both Dan Cruickshank and Adam Hart-Davis have produced BBC2 documentary series on it. This is not to say that the subject is no longer ripe. While it is formality that the Victorians are most famous for having introduced to the routines of death and grief (a facet they are assumed to have brought to virtually every social arena) this is a massive oversimplification of the revolution that the treatment of death underwent. Two movements, inspired by opposite poles of the spectrum of rationalism emerged, and are hugely more influential today than the vestiges of top-hatted sincerity that still occasionally cling to a modern death.

Championed by the likes of William Price, the theological upheaval required to bring cremation to popular acceptance has been forgotten today as the necessity of disposing of bodies in a more efficient way is obvious to most. The cracked and mossy mausoleums of our high-Victorian cemeteries are the cherished inheritance of a culture that has moved on from the unquestioned need to bury its dead.

Contrasting with cremation's progressivism (though it occasionally looked backwards for historical precedent), the emergence of Spiritualism drew strength from an entirely different set of conditions. Largely feminine; caught between the millennia old conviction that the soul endures, and scientific predictions about the endurance of matter and energy through transformative states; Spiritualism remains a far more approachable view of the afterlife than that presented by western Christianity. The number of television shows fronted by softly spoken mediums with regional accents attests to the undiminished desire of people to believe that the spirit survives in an uncomplicated state, waiting only for us to discover the means to rekindle unfinished conversations.

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