The explosion of flight 800 was a great tragedy and it captures our attention. The fact is one thing; the aftermath is another. Day after day on television we see angry relatives complaining about the delay in recovering and identifying the bodies of their loved ones. One cannot help but wonder why they linger at the beach or spend hours hounding authorities. What are they really complaining about? Why don't they just go home and get on with their lives?
It may seem like a callous question to ask; in some way we know and sympathize, and yet...
Where is the deceased person? We know the body parts are disintegrating in the ocean. There have been many deaths and burials at sea. Similarly, on land, the corpse is buried and we know that decomposition takes place. Part of the funeral ritual is to protect the body and delay this process. The ancient Egyptians preserved the bodies of their pharoahs most successfully; the mummies are exhibited in the great museums of the world to this day, along with artifacts and implements, not to mention servants, to accompany them to the next life.
The Egyptians were not the first or the last to try to deny death. There is something about death which is reacted to with great aversion and terror, in spite of religious beliefs which promise everlasting life. Perhaps it is animal instinct, the drive to self-preservation, and yet, in spite of our civilized and cultured beliefs, the dread and accompanying denial persist.
Can the relatives be clinging to the hope that their particular loved one survived the crash? Could there have been a guardian angel with saving grace? Could there have been a miracle? Can hope be prolonged? Can dealing with the horrible, painful truth be put off forever? Can existential anger be redirected to the authorities? Must someone be blamed, punished?
Realistically, we hope for the investigation to give us answers which will be used to prevent such happenings in the future. And yet we know that terrorism and violence and destructiveness will not go away. Still, we want to feel we have some power over death and destruction.
The deceased person is not in the body parts, nor in artifacts connected with the victim. Similarly, the buried body is not the person. The person is no longer in the ocean or the casket or the mausoleum, not in the cremation ashes or the funeral urn, not in the letters or the photographs.
The deceased is in our memories, our brain, our mind, our heart, our soul, whatever name is appropriate to our understanding. Insofar as the person was beloved, he or she remains part of us in terms of remembrances, recollection and sentiment. We may visit the grave on the anniversary of the death, we may hold imaginary conversations or perform comforting rituals. We may say prayers and hope for the persistence of the immortal soul. We may be convinced that we will meet again in the hereafter.
But as always, life goes on and the grieving is over and the soul is healed. We feel sorry for the family members of the victims of flight 800, but we are glad we are not one of them. In the back of our mind we know that there but for the grace of God go I. There, but for the grace of God, I am shouting into the microphones for all the world to see, "How could you let this happen?"
Plato is said to have said that we don't know anything about death, therefore it is irrational to fear it. If he is right, it is also irrational to deny it or dread it. And yet we do.