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Thursday, October 06, 2011

to be buried naked

For Mr. T.

I am fascinated and mystified by Chinese history. I am always coming across stories that are on the edge of allegory – but unlike allegory, don’t seem to reference any larger exterior abstraction. Rather, they seem to allegorize concepts I have never thought, and which I suspect have not been thought, at least not yet. Allegories of the virtual, quoi.

Which is my preface to this passage I found in an essay by a French sinonolgue, Jacques Gernet, entitled: To be buried Naked. From 300 B.C. to 100 BC, Chinese nobles engaged in a status contest of more and more luxuriant funeral ceremonies. It was not enough to be buried in one coffin – one coffin was put in another, all made of different and rare substances. It was not enough to be buried with ceremonial robes, but the finest jewelry had to be added. It got to the point that families ruined themselves to bury their dead.

Gernet notes: “It was thus necessary to be an original to go against practices that had imposed on all of society such powerful motifs, and to want to be buried nude, like a certain Wang Yangsun to which the History of the Han consecrated the following notice:

Yang Wangun was a man of the epoch of the Emperor Xioaowu. He studied the techniques of Huangdi and of Lao Tze. Very rich, he had given himself without counting to cost to various longevity practices. Being sick and on the point of dying, he addressed his sons as follows: “I want to be buried naked in order to make a return to my true nature. Don’t change my wishes the slightest jot: when I am dead, make a canvas sack, put my body in it, and dig a hole seven meters deep. When he put me in it, pull the sack off me from the direction of my feet, in order that my body might be in contact with the earth.” His sons, discovering that it was difficult not to obey his orders and insupportable to obey them, went to see his friend, the marquis of Qi (K’I), who wrote him this letter: “Although you are suffering, I have to accompany the emperor to Yong for the sacrifices and cannot come to see you. I am praying that you remain alive. Don’t worry, take your medicines and you will be properly sustained. I learned that your last wish was to be buried naked. If the dead are unconscious, there would be nothing to say about that. But if they are conscious, you would inflict a cruel torment on your cadaver underground; and you will be going to present yourself naked to your ancestors. This is something that, in your interest, I cannot accept. Moreover, doesn’t the Classic of Filial Piety say: “They will make him a first and a second coffin, as well as a suit and a winding sheet? “ These are the rules that have been handed down to us from the saints. How can one be so stubborn and act individually, following one’s own knowledge?” To which Yang Wangsun responded: “I have heard that the sainted kings of old instituted the funeral rites, because men at that time did not have any regard for their deceased parents. But, in our days, we go too far. This is why I am having myself buried naked in order to redress the customs of my age. Sumptuous funerals are really of no use to the dead, and yet everyone tries to surpass his neighbor; this results in an unfettered waste of wealth, which will decay under the earth. What is put in the earth today is sometimes dug up tomorrow [by the pillagers of tombs]. But besides, death is only the final transformation and the return of all beings. When this return is accomplished and the transformation is perfect, beings return to their true nature. This return to the obscure indistinct which has neither form nor voice is the union with the Dao. The display of luxury aims to blind the crowd, but sumptuary funerals keep the dead from returning to their true nature. To act in such a way that the return cannot happen and the transformation cannot come to its destined end is to deprive beings of their natural place. But I have also heard that the spirit belongs to heaven and the body to the earth. When the spirit quits the body, each of them returns to their true nature. This is why one speaks of gui [the revenant]; gui means return. How can the cadaver, which remains as alone as a brute thing, be conscious? However, one wraps it in silks, one isolates it in two coffins, one ties up its limbs and its body in ribbons, one puts jade in its mouth, and in order that the transformation cannot happen, one mummifies it. It is only a thousand years later, when the coffins have decayed, that the dead can at last return to the earth and find their true home. By this logic, what good is it to be a guest of the earth for so long? In the past, in the time of King Yao, in high antiquity, in order to bury the dead, one scooped out a tree in the form of a coffin and one made cords from bamboo. One never dug too deeply, in order not to trouble the springs of water, but deep enough that the miasmas could not escape outside. The sainted kings loved simplicity above everything in life as in death. They never bothered with useless things and did not spend their goods on them. The great sums we now spend on burials retard the return and prevent the destined end. The dead have no consciousness of what is done in their honor, and the living don’t find any value in it either. It is a double fraud. And this, I will not do.” The maquis of Qi approved these words, and Yang Wangsun was thus buried nude.”


2 comments:

P said...

Thain spent quite a bit to be buried in his coffin:

"On January 22, 2009, it was revealed that, in early 2008, Thain spent $1.22 million in corporate funds to renovate two conference rooms, a reception area, and his office, including $131,000 for area rugs, a $68,000 antique credenza, guest chairs costing $87,000, a $31,000 commode, and a $1,100 wastebasket. Thain subsequently apologized for his lapse in judgment, and reimbursed the company in full for the costs of the renovation."

Man, that must be some commode. He did pay it back, but that didn't prevent the miasma from escaping.

roger said...

Yeah, I've smelled that miasma myself!