Thursday, June 22, 2006


No More That They Can Do?

Luke 12.4:
Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.
But they that kill the body in fact have much more that they can do after that. For one thing, they can mutilate the corpse, as Achilles tried to do to Hector's dead body in the penultimate book of the Iliad, by dragging it behind his chariot around Patroclus' tomb.

Or someone can deny burial to a corpse, as Creon decreed that no one was to bury Polyneices, in Sophocles' Antigone. Similarly, in Sophocles' Ajax, Menelaus and Agamemnon tried to prevent Teucer from burying Ajax.

In Plato's Laws, some types of criminals are denied burial, such as parricides and witches (9.873 B-C and 10.909 C, tr. A.E. Taylor):
If a man be found guilty of such homicide, that is, of slaying any of the aforesaid [father, mother, brother, child], the officers of the court with the magistrates shall put him to death and cast him out naked, outside the city at an appointed place where three ways meet. There, all the magistrates, in the name of the state, shall take each man his stone and cast it on the head of the corpse as in expiation for the state. The corpse shall then be carried to the frontier and cast out by legal sentence without sepulture.

At death he [the witch] shall be cast out beyond the borders without burial, and if any free citizen has a hand in his burial, he shall be liable to a prosecution for impiety at the suit of any who cares to take proceedings.
Even after burial, a corpse can be maltreated, as Cambyses insulted the corpse of Amasis (Herodotus 3.16.1, tr. George Rawlinson):
After this Cambyses left Memphis, and went to Sais, wishing to do that which he actually did on his arrival there. He entered the palace of Amasis, and straightway commanded that the body of the king should be brought forth from the sepulchre. When the attendants did according to his commandment, he further bade them scourge the body, and prick it with goads, and pluck the hair from it, and heap upon it all manner of insults.
Cf. Jeremiah 8.1-2:
At that time, saith the Lord, they shall bring out the bones of the kings of Judah, and the bones of his princes, and the bones of the priests, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, out of their graves: And they shall spread them before the sun, and the moon, and all the host of heaven, whom they have loved, and whom they have served, and after whom they have sought, and whom they have worshipped: they shall not be gathered, nor be buried; they shall be for dung upon the face of the earth.
Disinterment is also a punishment in Plutarch's Life of Solon (12.3, tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
Myron of Phlya conducted the prosecution, and the family of Megacles was found guilty. Those who were alive were banished, and the bodies of the dead were dug up and cast forth beyond the borders of the country.
There is also a danger to corpses from witches, who exhume the bones of the dead to use as ingredients in their potions. See e.g. Horace, Satires 1.8.20-22 (tr. Christopher Smart, a statue of Priapus is speaking):
These I can not by any means destroy nor hinder, but that they will gather bones and noxious herbs, as soon as the fleeting moon has shown her beauteous face.
Only a few philosophers thought what happened to a corpse didn't matter, such as Epictetus (4.7.31-32, tr. W.A. Oldfather):
"But your head will be taken off." And does the tyrant's head always stay in its place, and the heads of you who obey him? "But you will be thrown out unburied." If the corpse is I, then I shall be thrown out; but if I am something different from the corpse, speak with more discrimination, as the fact is, and do not try to terrify me. These things are terrifying to children and to fools.
Anecdotes also survive about the philosophers Diogenes and Theodorus and their lack of concern about what would happen to their bodies after death.

Much more could be said on this theme. There are many more passages like those cited above. There are lots of relevant ancient inscriptions, too, along the lines of Shakespeare's "curst be he that moves my bones."

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