Individuality and death

12 Dec
2009

Contemplation of the ravens that I feed on my terrace led to interesting conclusions about the importance of individuality in human relations, conclusions which can be extended to our graves and cemeteries.

Unique individuality is not obvious to me here
Unique individuality is not apparent to me here

I noticed that I was very curious if the raven that came each day to eat my offerings was the same bird or always another of the thousands that overwinter in Vienna. Since these birds appear identical to my non-raven eyes, I began fantasizing about complicated methods of marking the birds to establish their individual or collective identity.

How curious! Yet how characteristic of humanity. As humans, we strive to establish the unique identity of those with whom we interact, especially those close to us, and we do this through their individuality. Our closer relationships are with specific human beings, and we know and relate in unique ways to their unique individuality. Equally do we try to establish ourselves as unique individuals in the eyes of others.

Or here unfortunately....
Or here unfortunately….

In this way we are different from animals, especially lower forms such as insects to whom other individuals are merely interchangeable functional units of the social whole. In higher animals such as dogs, primates, elephants, dolphins and many others, individuality begins to become important. This is evident in the differing relations between individuals in the group, in a pack of dogs for example. The individual dogs are not interchangeable, and the relationship between any two is a unique phenomenon. When higher animals die, there is also evident mourning from the rest of their community. At the other end of the spectrum, the death of an individual ant is not even noticed; it immediately becomes mere food for the others.

As the most developed animal – and also more than animal – human beings are obsessed with individuality, even when it cannot be satisfied or has no functional purpose, such as my curiosity about the raven’s identity.

Roman cremation urn: a unique memory for a unique individual
Roman cremation urn: a unique memory for a unique individual

The desire for individuality extends even beyond death, which is obvious in the memorialization arrangements people have constantly made for themselves over the millenia. The greater the means, the greater the individualization of the arrangements. Thus pharoahs built huge pyramids and mausoleums with marvelous and unique art works; but even the humble Egyptian farmer spent as much as he could possibly afford for his own Book of the Dead and sarcophagus.

Differences in the importance attached to the individuality of grave memorials can also be seen between societies. Our own western society has recently tended towards minimizing this individuality, applying standardization even to our graves. We purchase anonymous  mass-produced urns, we are buried under rows of minimal and identical tombstones with only a name and date to distinguish ourselves from the other thousands near us. Or we dispense with the marker altogether and are buried anonymously or scattered to the winds or the waters.

One is tempted to ascribe this uniformity to a mass-produced modern human beings without individual tastes and desires. But I believe this cannot be true, because we live in an especially individualistic society. (The real reason, our lost hope for transcendence over death, will be the topic of a future blog entry).

No, I believe the desire to leave behind a memory of one’s unique existence, to be remembered as an individual and not a number, survives in all of us, if only latently beneath thick layers of socialized conformity. Similarly, I believe cemeteries filled with unique memorials of others satisfies our characteristic human desire to relate to unique individuals, even dead ones or ones we never knew. Nothing is more depressing to the spirit than walking through a cemetery with thousands of identical and utterly non-individual stones.¬† Except perhaps a cemetery without markers altogether, since here the individual has finally given up all aspiration to individuality.

In contrast, a cemetery like Perpetua’s Garden would strive to provide memorials for every unique individual, regardless of means. Memorials that express their individuality, their contemporary tastes, their personal beliefs, their private hopes. Of course, our own modern-day pharoahs have the right to create grand memorials for themselves. But our contemporary equivalent of the simple farmer should also have the right to be remembered and thought of as the unique individual that he or she was.

Making this possible for all is one of the most important tasks of Perpetua’s Garden. Alongside perpetual rest for all.

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