def:1. deterioration, esp of morality or culture; decay; degeneration2. the state reached through such a process
Anthropologists have pointed to evidence of the reverential treatment of the deceased as one of the first signs of humanity's advance from the primitive to a nascent civilized state. In Judaism, for example, the body of the deceased is treated with the utmost care and reverence:
While the preservation of life in Judaism is of paramount importance, taking precedence over nearly all other priorities and observances, death is not therefore abhorred or devalued. Instead, death is seen as a part of life and a part of God's plan. The extensive mourning rituals in Judaism do not indicate a rejection or protest of death, but demonstrate the great value Judaism places on life in general and the life of each individual person.
Upon the death of a Jew, the eyes are closed, the body is covered and laid on the floor, and candles are lit next to it. The body is never left alone as a sign of respect. Those who stay with the body are called shomerim (guards). Eating, drinking, or performing mitzvot are prohibited near the body, as such actions would mock the person who is no longer able to do such things.
In Jewish law, being in the presence of a dead body causes ritual uncleanness. Thus a kohein (member of the priestly family) may not be in the presence of a corpse, and those who have been must wash their hands before entering a home, whether or not they actually touched the body.
Most Jewish communities have a special group of volunteers, the "holy society" (chevra kaddisha) whose job is to care for the dead. This work holds great merit since those they serve can never repay them. They are responsible for washing the body and preparing for burial in accordance with Jewish custom. (For more information on the chevra kaddisha, see this PBS article.)
A few weeks ago I was at a meeting with a member of the local chevra kaddisha, and was struck by the spiritual preparation she engaged in prior to even encountering the body.
At one time it was universally accepted in the heirs to Judeo-Christian Civilization that each life was precious; for most, the idea that a Creator had endowed each of us with "certain inalienable rights" was a baseline; all else followed. Now, the sanctity of life and of the body has been eroded in this most post-modern of post-modern times. The body has become commodified, that is, it is no longer a holy vessel but merely an hedonic avatar.
The news is not promising:
The mission of Planned Parenthood has changed since the days of founder Margaret Sanger. Among the eugenicist's progressive efforts, in 1939, Sanger conceived the "Negro Project" to reduce the population of "inferior" black Americans . Today, Planned Parenthood claims to deliver "vital reproductive health care, sex education, and information to millions of women, men, and young people worldwide."
Noble language. But visiting PPF's abortion-focused website makes traditional Americans feel dirty. Reading "Healthy, Happy and Hot," a PPF affiliate's guide to the "rights" of young HIV-carriers, sends traditionalists looking for a hot shower and strong soap.
Apparently, if you are young and HIV (+) your rights to pleasures of the body trump your partner's right to know that you carry the HIV virus. If there is nothing sacred about the body, then anything goes.
But that is not the worst news of the day. Apparently, an "artist" from among our elder cousins in England, where they are farther along on the road to decadence, has taken a logical step and is being celebrated for it:
The emaciated and lifeless body of 100-year-old Annie Mary Todd lies propped up in the refrigerated room of the undertaker's funeral parlour.
With a hospital band still visible on her wrist, her long bony fingers caught in a half grip and her mouth locked in a gummy rictus, the image of the corpse captured by the dead woman's daughter, artist Daphne Todd, has been shortlisted for a prestigious art prize.
Last Portrait of Mother is described by the painter as a "devotional study" completed in the three days following Mrs Todd's death in April last year. The work beat more than 2,000 other pictures to make it to the final stage of this year's BP Portrait Award, now in its 31st year.
Ms Todd described the process of painting her dead mother as "therapeutic". ...
However, she accepted that the painting, completed in two canvases, has the power to shock. The artist admitted that her daughter and brother – he has never seen the picture and is unlikely to do so – were "upset" and "uncomfortable" at the work. "Painting is a form of digesting something. It is an analytical process but it was actually quite therapeutic. It gave me something to do after she died and a reason to be with her," she said.
Mrs Todd had been in hospital in the two weeks before her death. When her condition deteriorated her daughter dashed to be at her bedside but arrived too late. "She was still warm and propped up like that. I told them in the hospital I would like to paint her and they arranged a sympathetic undertaker," she said.
The artist spent three days at work in the cool room at the funeral parlour but said her mother's body was then "beginning to colour a little bit". "I would have been uncomfortable to go on," the artist said, although she said she found the undertakers "cheerful" to be around.
The "artist" used her mother's body for her own purposes, to help herself feel better. In our idiotically therapeutic age, such an excuse allows anything, no matter how foolish or misguided. This is the use of a body as a commodity.
In a purely material sense, there can be nothing so immanent as a soul, so there is minimal distinction between the animate and inanimate body. (Note that the painting gave her "something to do ... and a reason to be with her.") The "artist's" denial only breaks down when the decomposition advances far enough to be "uncomfortable."
Art has long since become decadent. We celebrate those artists who shock and "transgress." The aim of art is no longer to bring beauty or illuminate the presence of the divine but has become purely hedonic and visceral. Art now celebrates its own decadence and prizes are given for those who most clearly express the self-loathing of the modern post-civilized man.
It may well be that some day in the not too distant future we will have progressed far enough to determine whether or not the Divine exists within us. Mind clones and uploads may render the question of the existence of a soul moot. However, even if the soul is a fiction it is a fiction that supports the best within us; if we surrender our souls, our Civilization will follow shortly thereafter.