Ashes to Ashes image

Ashes to Ashes

One of the books I currently have on the go is the autobiography of Paddy Ashdown, A Fortunate Life. I was never that convinced by Ashdown the politician, but he certainly had a fascinating life prior to politics, as an officer in the Royal Marines, member of the Special Forces (based in my home town of Poole of course!) and then agent for MI6. It is all real James Bond stuff.

One story Ashdown tells is of active service in Borneo in which he recruited a band of ‘irregulars’ from the local tribe. These men were head hunters by tradition and after one expedition “produced a bag out of which rolled four human heads.” Ashdown protested about this, but the men explained that without the evidence of heads they would be unable to prove their prowess. As a compromise, they settled on merely collecting the right ear of their victims, a compromise Ashdown considered fair, but which he recognises would have caused a scandal had it become known in Britain.

This story put me in mind of the recent scandal of US Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan – an action that drew unequivocal condemnation from all quarters. It also put me in mind of David cutting the foreskins from 200 Philistines as a bride-price for Saul’s daughter Michal. (I’m not sure I would appreciate that exchange for one of my daughters, fellas!)

The way in which a culture treats the dead speaks volumes about that culture – which is why the burial rites of ancient civilizations is always of such interest to archaeologists and anthropologists. Whether it is the charred remains of Viking longboats, pyramids in Egypt or barrows in Dorset, the rites of death tell us much about the attitudes of the living; and an important corollary is how dead enemies are treated.

Objectively, urinating on a dead enemy (or lopping off his ear) might seem a lesser indignity than killing him in the first place. Given the choice, I’d rather lose an ear than my life. (Didn’t Jesus say something along those lines too?) But to treat the dead with dignity – even dead enemies – is a sign of one’s own civility. Even in the blood and filth of battle the knowledge that the dead will be honoured rather than desecrated is somehow civilising, and to defy this convention is to in some way dehumanise oneself.

Ultimately, our concern for the dead illustrates an underlying assumption that this body is not merely so much organic matter but a being of ultimate significance.

I took a funeral today, at the end of which I pronounced the words of committal:

Forasmuch as it has pleased Almighty God of His great mercy to receive to Himself the soul of our sister here departed, we therefore commit her body to be consumed, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our earthly body, that it may be like His glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby He is able to subdue all things to Himself.

Ultimately, a body – even a dead one – has God’s fingerprints, and God’s claim, all over it.

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