The Return of Antigone: Burial Rites in Pandemic Times

 

A notable essay by my friend Asunción Álvarez (2020) sparked these reflections on burial rites and their imposed modifications due to the present circumstances, which can only  be defined as a “state of exception.” This name risks incurring in non-sense or an oxymoron, since the claim is we must adapt to a “new normal,” the interruption of a previous legal order regarding basic rights, such as the freedom of assembly, commerce, travel within the city and beyond its borders, etc.  The Covid-19 pandemic altered an otherwise “normal” condition and a “state of exception” has been established, like it or not.[1]

For many, myself included, the state of emergency implies a dictatorial infringement of basic civil liberties, which large segments of the population justify and accept, albeit resignedly, due to the supposed belief these measures prevent contagion and fatalities. The long history of a paternalistic logic of biopower is at work here: “It is for your own good that we order you to do it!”. In the new world order that is outlined before our eyes, Big Brother restricts privacy, making the latter an increasingly archaic term.  Health is equivalent to wealth in the war for planetary economic power, which States administer and regulate.

The rites and norms that regulate certain behaviors regarding the bodies of the dead can be counted among the new conditions the State enforces. Under habitual, “normal” conditions in “democratic” societies, the people closest to the deceased were allowed to decide, even before death, on the funeral rites to be followed. Countries and cities were governed by specific rules and procedures regulating the steps to take. We will not dwell on this point; there is a generalized consensus this is as it should be. A cultural universal, we might say, obvious and widely known, is embedded in the set of citizens’ legitimate and legal freedoms.

This central issue is rigorously detailed in the text by A. Álvarez.  I congratulated the author upon reading it and noted that its implications brought us back to the time of Antigone, Creon and Polynices, as we know them from multiple sources, especially Sophocles’ tragedy. Although the present circumstances also brought to mind my previous work on this subject, presented at a colloquium on funerary art in Mexico, I will not limit myself to those earlier reflections here.[2] I wish to go further by examining, from the perspective of the present, one of the main points of that work: the condition of those who live “between two deaths,” according to an invaluable contribution by the Marquis de Sade (1797) at the end of the 18th century and later taken up by Jacques Lacan in his seminar of May and June, 1960.

A month ago, G. Agamben wrote about the legal restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, reflecting on the limits we would not tolerate were they transgressed in the name of public health safety. The Italian philosopher focused on three characteristics of the supposed “new normality.” I will translate only the first one:

The first point, perhaps the most serious, concerns the bodies of the deceased persons. How can we have accepted, for the sake of a risk impossible to specify, that persons we love and human beings in general, should not only die alone—something that had never occurred in history from Antigone until now—but their corpse be incinerated without any burial rites? (Agamben, Lundi Matin 239)

Antigone had returned. I re-read my text of some 40 years ago where, based on Lacan’s works, I wrote about burial rites and the figure of Antigone. I found it reasonable enough to re-think Agamben’s question but considered a re-appraisal necessary because of important essays published in the intervening years. Those texts, which I will discuss shortly, as well as Álvarez’s article, offer an opportunity to once again return to the beautiful and uncanny figure of Antigone. It allows us to reflect on the consequences of the present regulation of burial rites that prescribe what is allowed and not allowed and how past norms are being modified under the pretext of public health. Antigone can still teach us a great deal with her own example: a destiny, chosen in defiance of the despotic tyrant claiming to act on behalf of the salvation (health) of the city.

What can and should be done with the bodies of the dead in pandemic times? Are these bodies dangerous, due to the risk of contagion? How much time should transpire between death and the burial or cremation of the bodily remains? What must be done with their clothing and other personal objects that could be contaminated? What of the wakes, masses, lay and religious ceremonies, the gatherings of mourners and friends? Few, if any, of these questions have a clear answer in 2020.

Due to the pandemic and fear of infection, the time allowed for a deceased body to be present before it reaches its destination have accelerated: it must be disposed of quickly, as soon as possible. New cemeteries must be built quickly, the gravediggers cannot keep up, there are not enough coffins and the dead are often  buried in cardboard boxes or plastic bags, such as those thrown into the garbage bins found in the corners of large cities. Latin America, with Brazil and Ecuador as the most extreme and improvised, is at the forefront of this degradation of life even in death. The profanation of the corpse is common and points to an anti-erotic, thanatotic force, especially if we agree with G. Bataille: “Erotism is the affirmation of life, even in death.” (Battaile, 83). We can invert the formula in light of the present cancellation of burial rites: “Anti-erotism is the condemnation of death in the name of life.”

We all know there is historical variability in the norms and customs of different sectors of societies, cultures and religions, regarding their more or less specific rituals. We also know that for some time now, in the West at least, death has lost its status as a decisive event. The classic, essential work on this topic is by Philippe Ariès, while the banalization of death is Agamben’s central topic in Homo Sacer. Many authors, such as Jean Allouch (2001), refer to the present time, whether to lament it or not, as “dry death”: the reduction of the time and external signs of mourning, the generalized desiccation of the flood of tears, the cancellation of hired mourners (lloronas) or a widow’s self-cremation in certain cultures.  In many parts of the postmodern world the external signs of mourning, required in the past, have become shameful, as if they were an invitation to explain or speak about why they are carried out and in that way place the deceased at the forefront of any dialogue with the other.

Now is not the time to speculate on the economic, social, political and ecological reasons for these changes. These appear to be intimately linked to the secularization of nation states, the acceleration of time corresponding to modern technologies that run at the speed of light, as well as life expectancy statistically related to advances in the medical treatment of acute and chronic illnesses. The latter make death an expected event due to an aging population, weakened by the span of time and physical decay. The old are now the vulnerable ones, those who can be “disposed of” more rapidly when decisions are made regarding the distribution of the scarce healthcare resources available, the result of cuts justified by neoliberal policies dedicated to more “productive” ends.

Old age is costly when considering the economic and human resources dedicated to its needs. “Retirement homes” (in many cases a euphemism for a “depository”) are real estate, a superfluous expenditure given that its residents have nothing to contribute. With Swiftian humor (“A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick” [1729]), problems could be resolved with a “final solution,” Eichmann style. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was not far off from such a proposal when he claimed it would resolve the issue of caring for useless old people and would contribute to herd immunity, which the active part of the population could reach via geronticide. In Mexico, the expression used is “desviejadero.”[3]

Death in the 21st century is not what it used to be. It has become naturalized and thus lost its supernatural aspect. There is no need for statistics to know how many people believe or not in eternal life, heaven, purgatory, paradise and the promises, performative and impossible to invalidate, regarding the resurrection of bodies (who can declare the promise was not kept?). The mandate of a virtuous life needed to secure or achieve an otherworldly reward is now put aside in favor of the order to enjoy early and as much as possible. What seems to prevail now is the rather vulgar saying  “the living to enjoy, the dead to the hole” (el vivo al gozo y el muerto al pozo). That hole is no longer the site of pilgrimages, care and floral ornaments. Cemeteries are losing the halo of being saintly ground. The mandate to forget is preferred to the Hebrew zachor, as well to the Passion in Christian mass. In present day anti-erotics one must turn the page as soon as possible. It’s time to move on!

The facts are here with us and underscored in these times of exception. Be it because of the need to avoid crowds around the deceased, due to the potential danger of the corpse, or because the bereaved cannot travel in this era of globalization, when practically everyone has family and friends abroad or at a great distance from the place of origin (the means of transport are impossible to find or one risks being quarantined when arriving or departing). Everything conspires to modify burial rites, those sublime Totensfeier of Mahler’s second symphony or the many versions of the Requiem mass, including the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ every Easter (Reik, 1953). In 2020 the Christian liturgy was interrupted for the first time since the Middle Ages with the Vatican’s consent, although not without local resistance. It was one of the many ways, although not the least important, by which the “state of exception” was manifested.

At best, the commemoration of the dead is postponed until after the quarantine period, when sports events can also be rescheduled.  Meanwhile, funerals can only be attended by ten people and transmitted by social media for those not present. The coffins must be closed, the contact with the deceased’s body or clothing is prohibited, as is thanatoesthetics and lustral washes, the cleansing of the dead. In the United States, President Trump ordered the flag be flown at half-mast when the country reached 100,000 dead and in Spain President Pedro Sánchez decreed ten days of national mourning. These are collective commemorations that blur the restrictions placed on the bereaved. Thousands instead of each one with their anonymous and embarrassing dead. Some Jewish and Muslim religious leaders decided against revealing the time and place of religious ceremonies to limit the influx of worshippers. In various parts of Mexico, there have been attacks on the vehicles that transport the health professionals who care for the sick, and even on hearses.

One could say that this is the context for the induced and premeditated paranoia of a global experiment conducted on behalf of “biosecurity,” according to the definition Agamben provides in a recently published text (Lundi matin 243). Under penalty of death, the world’s population is impelled toward a “voluntary servitude,” as La Boètie (1576) once noted. The control of bodies and their movements, contacts, the distances between them, etc. looms on the horizon, thanks to sensors that transmit the variables through apps installed in devices connected to the internet. In China and South Korea those devices are already in general use and are credited with being responsible for the successful control of the pandemic. The UK appears to be the next client in line for this voluntary servitude. It is not science fiction, the future is here. One must protect oneself from this virus and if not this one, the next. There is no better protection against terror than the creation of an even greater one. Gatherings of people, especially in great numbers, are dangerous; it is best for each one to be isolated, using technological devices. The body of the socius contaminates, the emblematic ágora is at risk: Hyde Park, the liberal institution and space of a legendary London becomes Hidden Park.[4]

Each change and restriction the polis imposes regarding burial rites recalls and commemorates the emblematic tragedy of Antigone that Sophocles (-440 EC) dramatized in exemplary manner. It is one of the West’s great myths, adapted to all literary and artistic genres in innumerable versions, as George Steiner (1994) noted. These versions continue to grow. It is difficult to find the name of any well-known thinker who has not concerned her or himself with  Antigone, fruit of the incestuous love between Oedipus and Jocasta, who confronts her maternal uncle, the tyrant Creon, King of Thebes, demanding burial rites for her brother Polynices, condemned to die without them.  Surprisingly missing from that list of thinkers is Sigmund Freud, whose keen knowledge of the theater and Greek myths made the history and destiny of Oedipus, Antigone’s father, a central focus of his theory of the psyche. The young maiden does not appear in the index of names in Freud’s Collected Works, even though in later years, Freud privately identifies himself with the tragic hero and calls his beloved daughter, Anna Freud (“a possession”), his Antigone.[5]

As if signaling Freud’s omission, his disciple or epigone Jacques Lacan dedicated various classes to Antigone in his 1960 seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis. These classes, that show a profound and unfathomable erudition, have been the object of serious and detailed readings by those who follow Lacan’s teachings. We are no exception. G. Agamben turns to the young heroine as the prototype of the resistance of family to the law of the city, embodied by the despot that rules its destiny (Lundi matin 239). Creon decrees the state of exception, condemning Polynices to die as the enemy of the polis of Thebes, without sepulture, thrown to the dogs and birds of prey. Antigone evokes another law that differs from the tyrant’s and for her is superior:  a law that is chthonic (of the earth), of the mother, in confrontation with a celestial, phallocratic power. In our 1980 conference we pointed to seven points of conflict that could be applied to the present situation, emerging from the unexpected but anticipated outbreak of a virus against which there are no antidotes for now and casts its pestilence over all nation states. Those seven points are the following:

1. the central relation of Antigone against Creon, which Hegel emphasizes as the opposition between the rights of the family and those of the State

2. the relation between Antigone and Polynices, her brother, which is Sophocles’ focus

3. the antagonic (Antigonic?) relation between masculine and feminine, underlined in the discussion between Creon and Haemon, the former’s son and Antigone’s betrothed. The tyrant confronts his son thus: “It is very clear that you have become the ally of a woman”

4. the conflict between Antigone, the rebel, and her sister Ismene: opposing sides between feminine rebellion and submission to masculine domination

5. Antigone’s relation to Jocasta’s maternal desire. Jocasta, Polynices’ mother, cannot accept the infamy that a child born of her entrails should not have proper sepulture

6. the acceptance of até, Antigone’s tragic destiny which entails accepting oneself a criminal without guilt or remorse and for this reason face the atrocious punishment of descending to her own sepulture while still alive and

7. the defiance of what is most terrible, uncanny, unheimliche (Freud 1919); the suffocation Antigone suffers when her executioners bury her alive.

Our text, still current in 2020, unpacked those seven conflicts. In his seminar, Lacan emphasized what is our interest now: the condition of the dead without sepulture. They remain between two deaths. Antigone is their paradigm: the first death is natural, an interruption of the vital processes, the specular image and the word. The second death is annihilating and irrevocable, eliminating the symbolic and imaginary rests, as well as the sepulture of a former living being who had a proper name, spoke as “I” and was considered a member of society. Power, in name of the public good, commands the erasure of memory. It is the too frequent situation  of the “disappeared”,  which we do not know if they are living or dead, where and when to find them or no longer look for them; those without sepulture, which in stories of zombies wander among the living  demanding remembrance and recognition.

They are also the “archived” elderly who now die in “residences,” forgotten by all, considered un-privileged carriers of pestilence, the most vulnerable, putrid carrion whose stench must disappear immediately, without leaving any remains able to contaminate those who enter into contact with what was formerly a body and is now mere flesh. The flesh of a human being becomes body when it enters language, gives it a name and attaches it to a specular image that constitutes its “identity.” In Guayaquil, Ecuador, for example, many are not placed in coffins, but rather carried away in cardboard boxes, thrown in common graves, pits, holes in the ground that become signifiers of the annihilating will of the Other.

The pandemic makes holes in the earth for the dead without names; they remain in those barren spaces, comparable to point zero at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the Twin Towers, Chernobyl, Fukushima, or the plastic islands that contaminate oceans. The planet is filling up with ominous grounds that signal a topology and toponomy where persons remain “between two deaths,” mute witnesses of a humanity fading in oblivion. The State claims the authority to consider the body of the deceased, the corpse, a “thing” and deny it the statute of  “person,” against established legislation and jurisprudence.[6] The dead cannot demand their rights, but those who survive them can. It is not a trivial question: we will all be corpses in an unpredictable but not distant future and, as such, it is in defense of liberty that we argue for the right to decide over the destiny of our own remains. The respect for the body is not over when animate life ends; it is an attribute of personal dignity. For this reason, in the articles by Agamben and Álvarez we’ve discussed, there is an emphasis on the elimination of rituals, the inalienable rights of she or he who had a place in a genealogy, was inscribed in language and should not be treated as a piece of furniture. Among these rights is of course the personal choice to eliminate burial rites: cremation or the scattering of ashes on earth or water, or even other possibilities, such as embalming, cryopreservation or, perhaps at the limits of science fiction, the sending off to outer space or keeping death in suspense, as in Edgar Allen Poe’s strange case of M. Valdemar (1844).

From the perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis, one must take into account the desire to express a “last wish,” notarized or not. Here one can clearly see that the deceased is desiring, although not jouissante (gozante) because there is only jouissance in life and in the movement of the drives, activated by corporal sources.[7] The corpse does not jouit (goza), but is the object of the desire of the Other, as well as those others (widows or widowers, sons or daughters of first and second marriages) who can agree or not regarding the destination of the body: the disposition of the place and arrangement of the burial rites, the task of undertakers, the sale of lots and pantheons in specific locations throughout the city, even the sepulture of pets (see E. Waugh, The Loved One [1948]). All these belong to the jouissance of the Other, including the power of the State, the power of present day Creons to jouir the bodies of the Labdacids, extinguished because they had no offspring.

This is why burial rites are needed: they make death a social event and not an individual avatar. The corpse can no longer participate in the social link that speech establishes but can be a link for the social (lien social). The rite brings together the survivors that evoke memory, the fame or infamy of the deceased. The burial rite establishes, historicizes and questions the bereaved’s memory and those that will undertake their singular grieving process by incorporating and making their own the symbolic and imaginary traces of the deceased. Mozart is the epitome of this destiny, but Lacan also mentions other examples when he writes: “ No doubt a corpse is a signifier, but Moses’ tomb is as empty for Freud as Christ’s was for Hegel” (Écrits, 693). Mozart is irrevocably lost for the Viennese. The Holy Sepulcher justified centuries-old wars whose echoes linger to this day.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus and Creon dispute the proper place for Oedipus’s own sepulture. In that confrontation, Theseus, King of Athens, mediates by affirming that good luck and blessedness, as well as the loving affection of the Athenians, will bring fortune to the citizens of the nation that would welcome Oedipus’s remains. Creon had wanted to seize the body of the old and blind Oedipus by force and take it to the city where the latter had been King (see Oedipus Rex). Although the play is the last of Sophocles’ known works, the action that unfolds in Oedipus at Colonus is prior to the tragic events that occur in Antigone. For  this reason, in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus’s four children (Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone and Ismene) are the ones who argue about the rites and site where their father’s remains should lie. The West wavers, even today, in the midst of a pandemic, between the graveyard and the dissemination of ashes after an industrial cremation. Where should lifeless bodies be placed?

In the space “between two deaths” Antigone suffers misfortunes (até) in the place the tyrant reserves for her brother. Rebelling against the decree of the King, who represents the polis, Antigone secures her brother a sepulcher. By claiming autonomy, she immortalizes her crime and denounces political power. Her destiny is comparable to those “dead without a sepulcher”: the corpses of Argentines cast to sea from airplanes, Don Juan thrown to Hell, Captain Ahab drowned by Leviathan’s fury (Moby Dick), falling from his boat into the storm at sea, Job the prophet, all those who dare rebel against the supreme authority, much like Leonard Bernstein in his third symphony: Kaddish. Let us recall that Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, is not a hymn for their remembrance, but a prayer to extol God.

Our remarks could well end on this point, but a final clarification is in order to avoid confusion and abusive over simplifications regarding the issue, limiting the discussion to a question of how to dispose of bodily remains in name of the needs of communities, with the pretext of guarding public health. The question is more complex and goes beyond the conflict between Antigone and Creon. It must be approached from a triple perspective: public health, law and politics:

1. From the juridical point of view, which was emphasized here, there is no doubt. The rights of the survivors and those of the deceased must be respected. The latter are neither things nor disposable remains.

2. From the perspective of public health, one cannot underestimate the malevolent power of the virus, regardless of its point of origin. Encouraging the general population to protect itself and maintain proper hygiene is wholly justified. Too many barbarities have been committed by certain officials, especially the presidents of the United States and Brazil, to propose the figure of Antigone as a model of civil disobedience toward political authority. It is clear that the measures taken by more qualified, prudent and  scientifically informed governments are showing the best results where everyone is informed of the risks of ending those measures too soon and thus producing a new outbreak. A well-informed but not terrorized  population supports those governments and that is encouraging.

3. What is alarming is the juridical-political level, the focus of the Agamben articles already noted. These are wholly valid even if they do not lead to clear guidelines as to what should be done. What Agamben’s articles question was already evident at the beginning of 2020 and are not the effect of the virus. Civil liberties, the weakening of imperfect democracies that still respected the electoral and parliamentary process, the growing intrusiveness of technological and social media, the manipulation of social demands, the re-allocation of resources for healthcare and education toward ecocidal and defense budgets, all this and much more was already present and created anxious discontent in progressive sectors (or more appropriately, on the left) at the beginning of this now ominous 2020. The time has not yet arrived to yearn for a too recent past in terms of what the future may promise. Rather, we would venture to say that everything that went wrong before will be worse in the future and no one knows where to look for hope. At the beginning of the year we ourselves did not know what political project or program to support. The pandemic did not create a new situation, it worsened what already existed. The left is between a rock and a hard place. The technology we all use fulfills its pharmacological function: it is both cure and poison. The fascists are conscious of their eventual adversaries’ general disorientation. They manipulate and extort with the “face-mask” of public health safety: either surrender civil liberties to the ruling power or choose disease and death; your money or your life!

Barcelona, 25 de mayo de 2020

Translated from the Spanish by Silvia N. Rosman

Bibliography

 

Agamben, G.:

- (1998)  Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.  D. Heller-Rozen, Trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

- (1999) Remnants of Auschwitz. The Witness and the Archive. D. Heller-Rozen, Trans. (New York: Zone Books).

- (2020a)  “Une question,” Lundi matin 239, April 20, 2020.

- (2020b) “Biosécurité et politique,” Lundi matin 243, May 24, 2020.

 

Allouch, J. (2001) Érotique du deuil dans les temps de la mort sèche (París: EPEL).

 

Álvarez, A. (2020) “ Morir y hacer duelo en tiempos de pandemia.” El seminario (Mexico), May 5, 2020. Retrieved from https://elsemanario.com/opinion/morir-y-hacer-el-duelo-en-tiempos-de-pandemia-asuncion-alvarez/.

Ariès, P. (1981) The Hour of Our Death. H. Weaver, Trans.  (New York: Oxford University Press).

Bataille, G. (1986) Erotism: Death and Sensuality. M. Dalwood, Trans. (San Francisco: City Lights Books).

Benjamin, W. (1968)  “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations (New York: Harcourt Brace).

Braunstein, N..

- (1981) “Un diván para Antígona”  in A. Aparicio, N. Braunstein and N. Saal, Eds., A medio siglo del malestar en la cultura de Sigmund Freud. México: Siglo XXI, 1981, 169-190.

- (2020) Jouissance: A Lacanian Concept. S. Rosman, Trans. (Buffalo: SUNY Press).

Lacan, J.:

- (1992) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. D. Porter, Trans. (New York: Norton).

- (2006)  Écrits. Translated by B. Fink (New York: Norton).

Marquis de Sade (1797) Juliette ou les prospérités du vice (Paris: Editions Humanis, 2015).

Reik, T. (1953)  The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young).

Steiner, G. (1994) Antigones (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Toureil-Divina, M. (2015) “Le droit du défunt,” Communications 97:2, 2015, 29-48.

 

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16-06-2020

 

 

 



[1] See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and G. Agamben (1999).

[2] N. Braunstein (1980).

[3] This term refers to the greater mortality rate of older persons, especially at certain times of the year (Trans).

[5] In a letter to Arnold Zweig on February 25, 1934, Freud notes: “But you must realize that much as I resisted it, destiny has compensated me with the possession of a daughter that, in tragic circumstances, would not be far removed from Antigone.”

[6] See Toureil-Divina (2015).

[7] In keeping with the untranslatability of certain Lacanian concepts into English, they remain in the original French here. See Braunstein (2020) for a full discussion of this topic (Trans.).

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