Books and Arts; 文艺;

Book Review; 书评;

Death and mourning; 死亡与哀悼;

The end of the line;生命的终点;

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” mused Benjamin Franklin. With death, at least, humans have devised myriad ways to deal with the inevitable, from the practicalities of disposing the body to the grief of losing a loved one. In her new book “Making an Exit”, Sarah Murray, a contributor to the Financial Times, travels the globe to discover how different cultures conduct funeral rites and honour the dead.
本杰明•富兰克林曾沉思,“在这个世界上,除了死亡和税收,没有什么是确定无疑的”。面对死亡,人类至少已经想过无数种方式来应对这一无法回避的现实,从安置尸体的实际操作到失去所爱的悲痛之心。金融时报撰稿人Sarah Murray曾游历世界各地,在她的新书《退出》中探索了不同文化背景的人们是如何举行葬礼以纪念逝者。

A morbid subject, perhaps. But as Ms Murray's book reveals, it is a peculiarly British habit to quarantine death with “pragmatism, etiquette and control”. Other cultures have a more comfortable relationship with the deceased, and even commune with the spirits of ancestors. Funerals are not always solemn affairs.

A self-described “child of globalization”, Ms Murray has led a nomadic life. Having lived and worked on four continents, she is now based in New York—the depot of choice for those who pine for immortality. She undertook this globetrotting adventure for two reasons: to feed her wanderlust and to ponder her own final resting place. The death of her father, and his clear orders for an unfussy, secular send-off, prompted Ms Murray to consider her own long goodbye. The result is not only a fascinating travelogue, but also a personal meditation on loss and fate.

Ms Murray excels in the role of intrepid tour guide. She has an inviting way of taking readers by the hand to explore new cultures and places. Unfortunately she is less strong when she turns her gaze back at herself. Some anecdotes feel like a distraction—readers may wonder at the relevance of her hairdresser's great aunt's cremation, or of her bout of food poisoning in China. But if you are prepared to meander and occasionally indulge, then there is a wealth to discover within these pages.

The Balinese have the most extravagant funeral rites. They spend weeks creating elaborate pyres, often in the shape of a sacred bull, and burn their coffin-sheathed dead in joyous public ceremonies. Crying is frowned upon, as they believe this may hinder the spirit from reaching heaven. Conversely, the Shia Muslims in Iran embrace grief. They hold an annual ceremony of public weeping and wailing to commemorate the martyrdom in 680AD of Imam Husayn, grandson of Muhammad.

Pragmatism informs many funerary practices. The Zoroastrians in Iran, for example, traditionally leave corpses in towers for vultures to devour, so the bodies do not pollute the soil. Cremation is becoming more popular around the world, not only because land for cemeteries is increasingly rare and expensive, but also because ashes are easily transported. This is important in an ever globalised world, as for most people “the desire to be buried at home is the strongest”.

But most practices are shaped by religious beliefs and a faith in the afterlife. The Chinese keep shrines to the dead in their homes, and burn paper offerings to encourage the spirits to bestow good fortune on the living. Communities from Chile to Egypt to Sicily have mummified their dead to preserve the body for the afterlife. Ms Murray visits some particularly ghoulish mummies, dressed but withered, in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. For Hindus, though, the body is just a vehicle for the soul. In India the dying make pilgrimages to sacred sites, such as Varanasi, to be cremated and released into the River Ganges, India's holiest waterway. This is so the dead can achieve moksha—breaking the cycle of birth, death and rebirth to gain enlightenment. The cremation ghats in Varanasi burn day and night.

Rituals for the dead are “hooks on which to hang our behaviour”, says Ms Murray. They help the living to make sense of loss. Death may be hard to contemplate, but this book is as much about the journey as it is about the last stop.