Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Unburied Dead by Thomas Dyer 1898

THE UNBURIED DEAD by Thomas Dyer 1898

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The Greeks believed that such as had not received funeral rites would be excluded from Elysium. The younger Pliny tells the tale of a haunted house at Athens, in which a ghost played all kinds of pranks owing to the funeral rites having been neglected. It is still a deep-rooted belief that when the mortal remains of the soul have not been honoured with proper burial, it will walk. The ghosts of unburied persons not possessing the obolus or fee due to Charon, the ferryman of Styx, and Acheron, were unable to obtain a lodging or place of rest. Hence they were compelled to wander about the banks of the river for a hundred years, when the portitor, or 'ferryman of hell,' passed them over in forma pauperis. The famous tragedy of 'Antigone' by Sophocles owes much of its interest to this popular belief on the subject. In most countries all kinds of strange tales aro told of ghosts ceaselessly wandering about the earth, owing to their bodies, for some reason or another, having been left unburied.

There is a well known German ghost, the Bleeding Nun. This was a nun who, after committing many crimes and debaucheries, was assassinated by one of her paramours and denied the rites of burial. After this, she used to haunt the castle where she was murdered, with her bleeding wounds. On one occasion, a young lady of the castle, willing to elope with her lover, in order to make her flight easier, personated the bleeding nun. Unfortunately the lover, whilst expecting his lady under this disguise, eloped with the spectre herself, who presented herself to him and haunted him afterwards.

Comparative folk-lore, too, shows how very widely diffused is this notion. It is believed by the Iroquois of North America, that unless the rites of burial are performed, the spirits of the dead hover for a time upon the earth in great unhappiness. On this account every care is taken to procure the bodies of those slain in battle. Certain Brazilian tribes suppose that the spirits of the dead have no rest till burial, and among the Ottawas, a great famine was thought to have been produced on account of the failure of some of their tribesmen to perform the proper burial rites. After having repaired their fault they were blessed with abundance of provisions. The Australians went so far as to say that the spirits of the unburied dead became dangerous and malignant demons. Similarly, the Siamese dread, as likely to do them some harm, the ghosts of those who have not been buried with proper rites, and the Karens have much the same notion. According to the Polynesians, the spirit of a dead man could not reach the sojourn of his ancestors, and of the gods, unless the sacred funereal rites were performed over his body. If he was buried with no ceremony, or simply thrown into the sea, the spirit always remained in the body.

Under one form or another, the same belief may be traced in most parts of the world, and, as Dr. Tylor points out, 'in mediaeval Europe the classic stories of ghosts that haunt the living till laid by rites of burial pass here and there into new legends where, under a changed dispensation, the doleful wanderer now asks christian burial in consecrated earth.' Shakespeare alludes to this old idea, and in 'Titus Andronicus' (i. 2) Lucius, speaking of the unburied sons of Titus, says:

Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs, and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh,
Before this earthly prison of their bones;
That so the shadows bo not unappeas'd,
Nor we disturb'd with prodigies on earth.

Hence the appearance of a spirit, in times past, was often regarded as an indication that some foul deed had been done, on which account Horatio in 'Hamlet' (i. 1) says to the ghost:

If there be any good thing to be done
That may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me.

In the narrative of the sufferings of Byron and the crew of H.M. ship 'Wager,' on the coast of South America, we find a good illustration of the superstitious dread attaching to an unburied corpse. 'The reader will remember the shameful rioting, mutiny, and recklessness which disgraced the crew of the "Wager," nor will he forget the approach to cannibalism and murder on one occasion. These men had just returned from a tempestuous navigation, in which their hopes of escape had been crushed, and now what thoughts disturbed their, rest—what serious consultations were they which engaged the attention of these sea-beaten men? Long before Cheap's Bay had been left, the body of a man had been found on a hill named "Mount Misery." He was supposed to have been murdered by some of the first gang who left the island. The body had never been buried, and to such neglect did the men now ascribe the storms which had lately afflicted them; nor would they rest until the remains of their comrade were placed beneath the earth, when each evidently felt as if some dreadful spell had been removed from his spirit.' Stories of this kind are common everywhere, and are interesting as showing how widely scattered is this piece of superstition.

In Sweden the ravens, which scream by midnight in forest swamps and wild moors, are held to be the ghosts of murdered men, whose bodies have been hidden in those spots by their undetected murderers, and not had Christian burial. In many a Danish legend the spirit of a strand varsler, or coast-guard, appears, walking his beat as when alive. Such ghosts were not always friendly, and it was formerly considered dangerous to pass along 'such unconsecrated beaches, believed to be haunted by the spectres of unburied corpses of drowned people.'

The reason, it is asserted, why many of our old castles and country seats have their traditional ghost, is owing to some unfortunate person having been secretly murdered in days past, and to his or her body having been allowed to remain without the rites of burial. So long as such a crime is unavenged, and the bones continue unburied, it is impossible, we are told, for the outraged spirit to keep quiet. Numerous ghost stories are still circulated throughout the country of spirits wandering on this account, some of which, however, are based purely on legendary romance.

But when the unburied body could not be found, and the ghost wandered, the missing man was buried in effigy, for, as it has been observed, 'according to all the laws of primitive logic, an effigy is every bit as good as its original. Therefore, when a dead man is buried in effigy, with all due formality, that man is dead and buried beyond a doubt, and his ghost is as harmless as it is in the nature of ghosts to be.' But sometimes such burial by proxy was premature, for the man was not really dead; and if he declined to consider himself as such, the question arose, was he alive, or was he dead? The solution adopted was that he might be born again and take a new lease of life. 'And so it was, he was put out to nurse, he was dressed in long clothes—in short, he went through all the stages of a second childhood. But before this pleasing experience could take place, he had to overcome the initial difficulty of entering his own house, for the door was ghost-proof. There was no other way but by the chimney, and down the chimney he came.' We may laugh at such credulity, but many of the ghost-beliefs of the present day are not less absurd.

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