The Dying Art
of Passing Away
There are people who dream about impossible places they’d like to go when they die. We too imagine someday resting in an improbable place: the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. But, just we’re clear about it, we said ‘someday,’ not now, or tomorrow, well, who knows when? In any case, once we cross that threshold, we won’t give a damn.
However, even if you do, you may be still out of luck: some places have the inconvenient rule of forbidding people from dying there. Either because your waste-full body may ruin the environment, or climate won’t decompose it, or perhaps because they just don’t like you. So your choice may be as well to remain alive. Or almost, like the walking dead of Toraja. Good luck keeping your friends close, though.
As for us, we’ll never understand this drive to stay alive at all costs. Doesn’t anyone realize how everything became incredibly expensive? Besides, who wants to last longer than our loved ones? In other words, we’re fine with the expiration date that’s part of the deal of living. Oh, and we don’t need to know the day or the way either.
About those places people imagine will be throwing a red carpet, or rather, a white, cloud-like rug, and a welcoming party, we’re not so sure. It’s kind of taxing to start picturing a whole new set of realities to be faced, after however long we’ll spend struggling to make sense of what’s around here. Very distracting.
But so you don’t think we’re knocking down anyone’s beliefs, let’s suppose that everything would be exactly the same in this presumably after life? Why would nature go to such an extent to eliminate each and everyone of us, sending everything it’s got out to get us, if it’d be all to be continued, under unforeseen circumstances, then what? Oh, never mind.
PLEASE DON’T DIE HERE
In Japan, there’s a island, Itsukushima, that’s considered so sacred, that they don’t want the stinking likes of you there. That is, they’ll put up if you’re still talking, and specially, walking. But go drop dead somewhere else. In fact, since 1878, no one was born or has died there, and they may kill you for even trying it.
The enforcers are a group of otherwise pious priests, who spend the days in prayer at the island’s holy shrine. But all hell may break lose at even a sight of a pregnant woman, an elderly person or someone who’s terminally ill, although it’s not clear how would they know it. It all started with the Battle of Miyajima in 1555, after which all bodies were immediately removed from the island and the spilled blood was either cleaned or disposed. Yeah, that kind of piety has been going on for over 400 years, so just forget it.
Not so strict but still a difficult place to die at is Longyearbyen, in Norway. There’re no priests banning the dead there, though. Only the weather, apparently so cold as to preserve the bodies indefinitely. People buried over 100 years ago look like they’ve just fell asleep. Which, let’s face it, it’s kind of creepy. So get away from there, fast. One never knows.
Two other places prohibit people from dying there by decree. Both Falciano del Massico, in Italy, and Sarpourenx, France, decided that they’ve simply had enough of the dying and the death, and won’t have anymore of it. Claiming to have run out of room in the towns’ graveyards, Sarpourenx will actually fine you for dying. They’ll go after your relatives, but they conveniently take credit cards too.
THE WALKING DEAD REALITY SHOW
In Tana Toraja, Indonesia, they believe that anyone who dies can be turned into a zombie, and apparently they have some of those walking around to prove it. Either that or assumptions about the passing of the town’s citizens are greatly exaggerated. Which is quite unsettling, either way.
In a country deeply suffused by all sorts of spiritual beliefs, the ritual that supposedly gives rise to the Rolang, translated as the ‘corpse who stands up,’ is considered a natural part of some funeral rites. Either because the dead is said to take a long time until finally, well, considering himself or herself really dead, or for other, more prosaic reasons, most Indonesians take it all at face value.
To be sure, the only picture related to this unconfirmed story is quite haunting. In fact, when looked at closely, it scares the hell out of anyone. But, and here we go again, it’s the only one, a still that could have easily been manipulated for maximum effect. No matter for how long one scrutinizes it, all that it can be said about it is that, if it’s a hoax, it has an almost cinematic look.
What amazes us is not so much that a country still nurtures such unsavory beliefs, which, if nothing else, are a clearly health hazard to whole communities. Neither is the fact that the zombie iconography remains, shall we say, alive and well all over the world. But it’s how much wasted talent lies around in such an impoverished village; that’s really impresses us.
Which leads to think that, if this is, in fact, an elaborated hoax, the film industry has nothing on the people of Tana Toraja.
THERE’S A PLACE FOR US
Arguably the world’s most famous cemetery, Père Lachaise opened 208 years ago next May in Paris, established by Napoleon Bonaparte, who, of course, has his own burial place elsewhere in the same city. There are many other older and bigger graveyards around, but none with the sheer number of age-defining personalities, specially those connected to arts and culture.
Americans form the bulk of visitors to the grave of Jim Morrison, for instance, but curiously, are unaware of most of the other celebrities laying there, some of whom predate the leader of The Doors by several centuries. That’s because many famous were transferred there, years after their living years and untimely deaths.
That’s the case, for instance, of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th century doomed couple whose love story may have inspired Shakespeare’s tragedy about the star-crossed Romeo and Juliet. There are celebrated figures of the French Revolution and victims of many political upheavals, including Communists, Anarchists and those they fought, collaborationists, Nazi sympathizers and plain Fascists.
Pretty much all diseased heroes of French literature, arts, music and film are buried there. And the list of expatriates is also long and distinguished, including Polish Frederic Chopin, Irish Oscar Wilde, Americans Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and German Max Ernst, among many others.
This mix of the famous and the working class, of the deeply French and those who adopted their land and died there, make the place named after Jesuit priest Père François de la Chaise a kind of site of communion where all arguments cease to exist and only the deceased and their ideas are memorialized. Just like any other cemetery, you may say, except with an exceptional star quality to it.
If one day you don’t find us in our usual hangouts, if you call our cellphone and all you get is a straight-to-the-message connection, perhaps you may find us there. Since we’re far from deserving a place in such pantheon, we may have to dispute our own personal niche with the crows, who can be unforgiven. But we’re not afraid. As we said, we probably won’t give it a damn then.