What Medieval Times Teach Us About Respecting the Dead

The viral video of a group of U.S. Marines urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan is getting called a lot of names: "horrifying," "barbaric," "medieval."

People who study the Middle Ages tend to get a little bristly when what we study is used as a synonym for everything horrible and backwards. In this case, though, what the Marines are allegedly doing in the video does remind me of the strange events of 1428 when church officials dug up the body of English reformer John Wycliff, who, among other things, suggested that the Bible should be translated from Latin into languages that ordinary people could read. Forty-four years after his death, his beliefs were at the center of England's home-grown heresy, Lollardy, and the folks in power responded by disinterring Wycliff and burning his body. His ashes, like Joan of Arc's would be a few years later, were thrown in a river so that no one would be able to give the remains a proper burial.

2011 was a banner year for those of us who make a living studying the dead. The Apple Store in downtown Palo Alto became an impromptu shrine after Steve Jobs' death, covered with notes and personal messages to the tech giant. His funeral was a grand affair that shut down large parts of Stanford's campus.

I study rituals of death and dying, so I avidly followed descriptions of the funeral and Jobs' quotes on death that were making the rounds. I also made sure to not schedule a library visit on the days that campus was in lockdown in honor of Jobs and the dignitaries who paid their respects at Memorial Church.

At the far end of the spectrum from the deep respect paid to Jobs was the widely watched video of Moammar Gadhafi and the stories told around the world of just how his body was mutilated. (Even today, if you put his name in Google, seven of the top 10 suggestions are about that video and what was done to his body.) In the west, this event caused much tutting about showing proper respect for the dead. Proper respect that was paid ten times over in the recent funeral of Kim Jong Il. The entire year was a study in how the powerful die and what we do with them before, during, and after.

When my wife's cat died two days before Thanksgiving, my wife washed the body and I dug the grave. We wrapped the cat in a pajama top covered in cherries and flying birds, and planted a rose bush over her. We did this even though it was very clear that her spirit, if I can call it that, was gone. What remained was empty of whatever had made her 'Hoops.' It was just a body. She wasn't her anymore.

This is also the argument I use on my mom when we talk about organ donation (I'm for it) and cremation (she thinks it's creepy). Both of us were raised in religious families: Mom in a big Catholic family and me half-Catholic and half-Presbyterian, depending on which parent I was with at the time. Mom and I have both drifted though, and now we spend our Sunday mornings on the phone with each other instead of going to church. We're part of that larger drift toward secularity that everyone talks about from time to time. That shift in thought that makes it so I can look at my body and say it's just a body, rather than a microcosm of the divine will, like one of the medieval theologians I read about might have said.

But when you get right down to it, there is something about the body -- something that makes it worth all the worry we put into it while we're using it. (Haven't all of us vowed, in the past two weeks, to eat better and exercise more?) We believe our bodies are worth the detailed instructions we leave for what to do with it after we die. Whatever our faith, or lack thereof, we know that there are certain ways that you should and should not treat the dead.

And this is part of what makes the latest video of American soldiers behaving badly so appalling to witness. We all know that that is just not what people are supposed to do.

There's another thing, though, that this video shows us, another thing that makes us draw back in horror. In the dead bodies of those Afghan men we can see our own future helplessness.

One of the weird things that shows up on graves in the fifteenth century is the warning "As I am, you will be." Sure, life before the Reformation gets a bad rap. Especially the practice of buying Masses for the souls of the dead. But I think we could use to get a little more medieval. To learn to be brave enough see ourselves in the dead -- in these dead that a few stupid Americans are desecrating worse than the Church ever desecrated Wycliff.

Whatever side of the ideological divide we are on, whether we are part of "a Christian nation" or "a modern secular society," one of the few things that we should all be able to agree on in 2012 is that "do unto others" doesn't just apply to the living, and that each time a few bad eggs desecrate those killed in war, their actions make each of us a little less.

The phrase "no man is an island" gets tossed around pretty lightly these days, but at its core, it's about the same thing. When the funeral bells toll, don't ask who they are for. We're all in this together.