Wednesday, March 19, 2008

abide with me

Mammoth Cave preserves everything. The statistics were cited to us a dozen times in the last two days: 54° Fahrenheit, 87% humidity, all year round. Things stick around. We saw a log leaning against the wall that was dated at 2000 years old. Archaeologists working at the site told us that they had found shells of sunflower seeds from prehistoric times. And we heard about the mummified bodies that, in the early 19th century, cemented Mammoth Cave’s place as a tourist attraction.

The first one was found among a set of stone slabs that were set up as a rudimentary coffin. As more were found, some became traveling curiosities to advertise the cave, while others were set up in glass cases or on stands inside the caves for visitors to see. Our guide today told us about one mummified body that was found by a pair of explorers—it was a man that had been crushed under a rock. In the 1930s, while teenaged boys were working on laying out the trails through the cave that are still used today, they lifted the rock off the man, using a cable and tripod, and extracted the body. His was one that was shifted from room to room and put on display. Eventually, it was decided that showing off the corpse might be too disrespectful. Because it had no proper burial place, it was returned to the tunnel “near” where it had been found, so that it could be left undisturbed, with not even the guides knowing where it was.

I commented to Hannah at this point in the tour that humans sometimes have strange notions of respect for the dead. At times we put bodies on display, study them, or amuse and shock ourselves with them. Other times we treat them with the utmost reverence, hoping that giving rest to the bones will give rest to the spirit. One reads of Achilles dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy to dishonor his remains and dishearten the inhabitants. Why should these feelings be so powerful?

For one thing, memory is powerful. We remember the deeds of our ancestors, and we are grateful for their efforts that have led to our being here. Being good to their earthly remains seems to equate with being good to these people who are no longer with us in consciousness. For another, I think the hope of resurrection is embedded in us. It would be a strange superstition that the dead could walk again, because nothing natural suggests that it’s remotely possible. I suppose one, or a group of people, could find evidence that some personality is still at work even after their passing. Still, the desire to see certain people again, or the fear that we might see them again, is hope working beyond reason and stretching past the reality of loss. Respect for the dead is humane because we are connected to each other by more than physical interaction; the greater reality of our selves imbues dignity and meaning even to dry bones.

I’ll close tonight with a short passage from Psalm 73:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

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