Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review: Vampires, Burial, and Death

The subtitle of this fine book by Paul Barber, "Folklore and Reality," explains the contrast which is the subject of his research.

With admirable storytelling skill and a dry sense of humor, Mr Barber sets out to look at the folkloric depictions of vampires and other returnees-from-the-dead, and then compare those images with the realities of what happens to a body after death.

It turns out that, many times, the attributes of a dug-up, suspected vampiric body are the kinds of things familiar to fans of CSI -- in other words, these things are usually what SHOULD be happening to a body that's been buried for a month, or whenever.

Usually, in the cases from 500 years ago, which undoubtably were influenced by folkloric expectations -- as well as to influence folklore in the future -- the descriptions of the body included things like this: 
--body swollen;
-- body flexible and not stiff;
--hair and teeth seen as having grown since death;
--old nails shed and "fresh new ones" seen;
--blood around the nose and mouth;
--a sigh or gasp of protestation if the body is staked or otherwise violated.

Well, nowadays we know that putrefaction causes bodies to swell; that rigor mortis is a temporary state; that the skin shrinks around the teeth and hair, causing them to look longer; that the nailbeds of finger- and toenails look like "fresh new" nails if left untouched; that the gases of decay force blood from orifices like the nose and mouth; that these same gases will escape audibly if a new path for their release is made; and so on!

As told in these historic accounts, often in a village one member will die unexpectedly.  Soon afterwards, several other citizens will also die.  Eventually the people will decide that something unnatural is causing this perceived "rash" of deaths.  so the first person in this "string" is exhumed, at which time, three months later, the body is found NOT rotted away, but in a condition summarized above.

So, obviously to the horrified town members, the body has prolonged an unnatural life by causing the deaths of the others!

In several of the cases, Barber quotes lists where several bodies are dug up at once.  It is heart-rending to read how many of these bodies were of young women and their babies only days old.  Nowadays, when "everybody" expects to live a long life, it's sobering and bathetic to be reminded of the low life expectancies and lack of basic medicine and hygiene that were so common only a century or so ago.

This book is fascinating, if you have ANY interest in the "real" topic of vampires -- as opposed to the tarted-up version inspired by Interview with the Vampire and carried on by Underworld, Twilight, and such tripe.

Call me a purist or a traditionalist, but this sort of book is a much more worthwhile investment of a thinking person's time than gobbling down a dozen of those --uggh -- "romance vampire" books.

Barber does a really fine job of lining up folkloric expectations of vampires, with the findings of the digger-uppers.  Finally he comes to the conclusion that the vampire tradition is a part of the living's fear of the dead.  The RECENTLY dead.  Until we see final proof that the body has decayed -- bones are all that's left -- then, it is possible that the body may be reanimated.  Reanimation shows that not only might a "demon" be walking around in Uncle Joe's body.  Even worse, it's possible that Uncle Joe himself might be ambulating.  Even more so than what "he" might do to us, that means that UNCLE JOE IS NOT AT REST.  We have not done our familial/societal duty by ensuring that, as part of the process of things, Uncle Joe's body decays.  Once his body has decayed to bones, then his spirit is at rest.

All kinds of post-death natural processes are covered here, and the influence of burial environments, time buried, and all these things are discussed.  There's a lot of stuff in here!

Two comments:  In his discussion of a murderer's attempts to discard a dead body (through burial, disposal in water, or what-have-you), Barber discusses the perceived heavy weight of a corpse.  I am amazed that he did not mention the common phrase "dead weight," since this situation is the origin of the phrase!

Secondly, on page 187 and later, Barber discusses the concept of a person's shadow as a representation of their soul.  If you catch their shadow, they might be forced to return as a ghost.  This time, I'm surprised it did not seem to appear to Barber to mention the common parlance of referring to a ghost as somebody's "shade"!

If you have an interest in "true" vampires and not pretty-boy angst-ridden eye-shadow types, then this book will raise your eyebrows, broaden your perspective, (maybe) touch your heart, and elevate your knowledge level.

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