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At a Czech funeral

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Why we should not end up on a shelf without a ceremony
A question in a contest: Under the current laws, can a widow who has just seen her husband die in bed at home, keep vigil at his bedside for three days and then have a funeral procession march with the coffin from the entrance door of their Prague pre-fab flat as was the tradition in the time of our great-grandmothers? Try asking your doctor, a clerk, or a spokesman at the nearest hospital. They will probably not know. At a time, when knowledge of one’s own rights is part of the basic equipment of a citizen of the western world and all conceivable social taboos are being broken, death remains an unknown life situation about which we do not know and do not want to know anything. According to statistics, Czechs are world champions in psychological repression. Czechs prefer to hear a merciful lie rather than the truth from the mouth of their doctor in the autumn of their life, one third (in the country) to one half (in Prague) of funerals have the form of a cremation without a ceremony, every fifth urn with the ashes remains lying on the shelves of a crematorium, since no relatives come to pick it up. How should we interpret these facts?

Waiting for the ravens
Under the totalitarian regime there existed a regulation for a certain time that allowed funeral service vehicles to operate only at night, so that they did not disturb the normalized citizens too much during the day. Communism only crowned our detachment from death and old age that started before World War II with the development of big hospitals, where people were dying in solitude behind a screen. “Sanitary” measures, which saved the passers-by from seeing black vans, and relatives from having hard times with a dying grandfather, were, however, returning as a boomerang – in the form of unfinished relations, in which people did not say everything they had wanted; as dumb terror in expectations of one’s own death; or pain from the image of what might be happening with a body at the communist department of pathology, whose employees, broken arms of the dead or cigarette ends sewn up in dead bodies became themes of ghost stories.

A lot has changed in the past twenty years of freedom, but the problem of psychological repression remained. Today’s funeral services are its legacy. They take advantage of the lack of information of the bereaved and of their effort to be done with the whole thing as quickly as possible, they overcharge their services, bribe doctors and act impiously and rudely toward the dead and the living. Their manners and prices have definitely played a role in Czechs’ unwillingness to spend more time than necessary with the death of their close ones, to undergo the painful ritual of saying goodbye, when it is easier to forget about the unpleasant moments as soon as possible and go forward.

A coolly rational pragmatist could object that making much fuss after someone’s death is not necessary as nothing else can be done to save the situation anyway. Does it really make such a difference if a person is buried with a ceremony or not? One answer could be provided by religion, which traditionally attributes importance to the transition to the other world and afterlife; however, it does not make much sense in the atheistic Czech Republic. What’s left is to look for other explanations.

End or defeat
In connection with death psychologists like to talk about the need of transition rituals, symbolic steps that will end one chapter and open a new one. Saying goodbye to a close person without a ceremony leaves a feeling of incompleteness, it blurs memories and makes the new beginning more difficult. The absence of functional rituals and inability to complete things is not; however, connected only with funerals, but it has become a chronic disease of Czech society. One can only look at the dozens of political and judicial cases with no clear ending and catharsis. A society, which does not agree on the necessity of a clear ending, is destined to spin in circles. What is unfinished will always come back again. For that matter – maybe that the conflicted relationship that Czechs have to the communist regime has to do with the fact that we did not arrange a proper funeral for it, as was the case, for example, with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the apartheid.

The repression of death has one more unpleasant consequence. Death (even if natural, caused by old age) is not often perceived as a sad, but natural end of one’s life in our country, but rather as defeat. Death that we keep at arms’ length is frightening to us, and therefore, it must be bad. A typical example was the recent death of the architect Jan Kaplický (he was 71 and had a rich life), which was portrayed as a tragedy and death from exhaustion.

The fear and denial of death paradoxically yield a certain necrophilic fascination. For Czech tabloids any chemotherapy of a local celebrity is an event, and dying and funeral are the best keys to attract the media. As if it was to substitute for the readers what they are not able to go through with their close ones, because it hurts too much.

From Smíchov with a band
But let’s get back to the contest at the beginning. The correct answer is – yes. The law does not define how long a body can lie in a bed, and it does not ban a funeral procession that would start off from the home of the deceased. A widow can wash the dead body, dress it, say goodbye and play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or read from a beloved book to him for two days. And then arrange a funeral procession through Prague, for example, during rush hour and with a brass band. And why not?

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