Many people are afraid of death. Some are afraid of the dead. This latter fear can take many forms. The mysterious, top-secret burial somewhere at sea of the remains of Osama bin Laden, allegedly to prevent visits to the martyr’s grave, the prohibition until recently of the publication of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, motivated by the fear of the attraction it could still hold for antisemites and neo-Nazis, haunted houses, vampires, ghosts, the “living dead”, zombies and other superstitions, are still seriously believed by some who never grew out of their childhood fears of the boogeyman.
Studies by archeologists of human bones dating from the Middle Ages in Yorkshire, and research published by Historic England and the University of Southampton, are believed to reveal not only fear of the dead but mutilation of corpses to prevent them from walking and harming the living. Cannibalism has been ruled out : “the cut marks were in the wrong place for butchery”, says the article in today’s “The Guardian”.
I could not help thinking, as I read the report, of my discovery in a Basque Catholic cemetery of the chains covering one of its tombs. You can see them in my photo on this page. I have suggested that this is evidence of a more recent conviction that the dead can be dangerous, and for reasons other than threats to public health from decomposing corpses.
Spooky movies can be fun. Side-shows at country fairs and rides through dark tunnels where deathly wailing is accompanied by the sudden appearance of talking skeletons and rotting cadavers lunging at us as we get our money’s worth of thrills, frighten the kids and amuse the adults. But it seems that religious credulity about the afterlife, devils, demons and ghosts, has led some people to fear that the dead really can harm us. When we say “May they rest in peace”, are we praying that they stay where they are and not return to scare the bejeebies out of us and punish us for our misdeeds towards them ? Guilty consciences can produce strange fantasies in the minds of the gullible.