Today we celebrated another death.
How is it that out of all the structures and items that living communities have created throughout history, the ones that survive all seem to celebrate death? The pyramids of Eqypt and Mesoamerica were enormous shrines to death and dying, absorbing incomprehensible amounts of time, resources, and human effort to complete (not to mention defying explanation of how exactly some of them were constructed). Innovative technologies were pursued to embalm cadavers, and the poetic creativity of generations was applied to crafting detailed narratives documenting the road through one or another afterlife. China’s first emperor of Quin employed 700,000 workers to build and then bury a vast army of terra cotta soldiers, horses, and equipment for his use after death. India’s Emperor Shah Jahan amassed a long list of accomplishments during his life, but he’s remembered perhaps most for having begun construction of an elaborate mausoleum in honor of his first wife on this day in 1631. It would come to be known as the Taj Mahal.
Death gets more institutional attention in our individual lives. While births are celebrated, and then commemorated annually, their first notice is at most penned onto the thin, fragile paper of church record books or backs of bibles. Monuments to death are often very elaborate affairs, chiseled into marble or stone. The bias toward death is cultural and economic, too. Contrast how much money is expended managing peoples’ decline into death during the latter stages of their lives, and the far smaller effort put into supporting healthy births. We fight death aggressively and embrace birth passively, albeit more joyously.
For all the talk of being forward-looking, are our institutions skewed toward looking to the past?