Spring 2011 Teaching Schedule
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The classroom could serve as a Hollywood set for a very bad movie called Night School - basic blackboard, walls a weary blue, grim flourescent ceiling lights, some expired. A map of the world hangs in a corner; a teacher's voice drones in the background.
The class has spent the day variously working, relaxing, triumping, and despairing over trivial matters, loving, hating, dreaming. Their presence in this community college night class represents goals for the future, hopes of better jobs, tiny beams of optimism shining against the vast looming black puzzle of eternity. Once this nameless assemblage of bones did likewise. Who? What? How did he die? Did children weep, lovers grieve? Did he pass through a dark tunnel towards a being of light? And how did his earthly remains end up in the Cabrillo College Anthropology Department?
Down through the ages, the anthropologists tell us, humankind has disposed of its dead in a variety of ways. Half a million years ago, "Peking Man" may have beheaded the departed and ritualistically devoured the brains (a more direct way of absorbing knowledge than the semester system). In Europe 60,000 years ago those sin qua non cave dwellers, the Neandertals, buried their dead amid offerings of food, tools, and sometimes even flowers. Wealthy families in ancient China buried dogs, horses, and human beings with their dead: some kings had 300 human victims to wait on them in the afterlife, and 50 suits of clothes (after all, who knows how long dry cleaning takes in the afterlife).
We are buried face down, up, sitting, or sideways. Remains are customarily aligned in some traditional fashion, usually in the direction of the Afterworld: "When I die, bury me with my saddle, and my face turned towards the west," as the cowboy ballad goes (facing westward seems to be a favorite around the world). The Mandan Indians of the North American plains pointed the feet southeast, towards the Heart River, where the Ancestors lived. Feet towards Jerusalem is preferred by some Christian sects, so they can meet Christ there on the Day of Judgement.
Some cultures favor cremation, others mummification. West Africans bury relatives under the floors of their houses while Polynesians put the corpse on a raft and set it out to sea. Prehistoric North American Indians disposed of the dear departed in "middens," an anthropological term for the garbage dump. What will anthropologists of the future have to say about our modern American burial practices? (Everyone should read Jessica Mitford's fascinating book The American Way of Death). Yesterday I watched a family, amidst tears and much hugging, release helium filled ballons out over the Pacific Ocean. When I asked about this ceremony, I was told that each ballon held some of the ashes of a dear departed one.
The anthropology instructor, a small, neat, greying man with a goatee and a small stud in one ear, comes to retrieve the skeleton and lock it up for the night (they used to leave it out, he explains, but students were filching the bones; thus the missing leg, and the fact that de arm bones ain't connected to de wrist bones). The anthropologist makes a little joke: "He hasn't been well lately. He's lost a lot of weight." Class and teacher laugh. Even the skeleton is grinning.
You could feel sorry for the guy - no fancy casket, no flowers or yearly visits from the family.
But come to think of it, perhaps this is better. He's not isolated in the cold and dark, alone. Life bustles on around him. He is often the center of attention. He has a purpose; he is helping to educate the living. He has gained the dignity of affiliation with an institution of higher learning. There's even a certain cheering symmetry to it - human remains interred in a Department of Anthropology, the scientific study of humanity.
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