Friday, 9 November 2012

The Evil That Men Do

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

At a Scarborough Borough Council meeting, councillor Colin Haddington called for Jimmy Savile's body to be exhumed and removed from the cemetery. Savile’s nephew Guy Marsden said he supports the families of other people buried at Woodlands Cemetery who want the body moved away and would also support plans to dig up and cremate Savile. The gravestone has already been removed but exhumation may not be simple as it's reported the coffin is encased in concrete.

There's a lot more going on than simply removing the body of a man that many people admired and now revile.

There’s a long tradition of removing or mutilating corpses of people who have committed an offence during their lives. It's a symbolic act – sometimes politically symbolic, sometimes morally or culturally.

It’s as if removing Savile will distance him from society, cast him out. He can't be brought to trial, but he is effectively being tried posthumously, his remains have been judged unfit to lie with others. Savile was a practicing Catholic and his removal would be a kind of excommunication from the community of the dead, like the burial of certain categories of people in unconsecrated ground. In this context, burning his body is a symbolic way of wiping him out.

In 897 at the Cadaver Synod, Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of Pope Formosus disinterred and put on trial. He was found guilty and thrown into the Tiber.

When Harold I Harefoot, king of the Anglo-Saxons, died in 1040, his half-brother Harthacanute succeeded him and had his body disentombed, decapitated and thrown into an animal pen or a river, according to different sources.

John Wycliffe was burned as a heretic 45 years after he died in 1384.

Oliver Cromwell was exhumed, hanged for a day at Tyburn, beheaded and the head put at the end of Westminster Hall.

In 1917 Rasputin was exhumed by a mob and set fire to.

Other practices included digging up and mutilating the bodies of people suspected of being vampires to prevent them rising and the use of murderers’ bodies for dissection, denying them a burial.

There are three main reasons for doing this – to punish the dead, to warn the living and to appease the living.

Some Christians believed that that the body had to be buried whole facing east so it could rise facing God on Judgement Day. Burial in unconsecrated ground, dismemberment or other destruction therefore prevented resurrection and condemned the person to Hell.

Posthumous punishment could also be a sort of restitution to the living – anyone who had suffered at the hands of the dead person, a kind of revenge of the powerless. It's also a very good way to make a political point. Desecration of the dead was taken very seriously, so making an example of a corpse could also serve as a warning to the living, to make them fear for their souls, their family reputation or their own honour.

Even though (most of us) no longer believe it's necessary to be buried whole to be resurrected or that a dead person (or at least their soul) can be posthumously punished, even for the non-religious, the thought of their body not being treated in the way they want after their death can be a hard thought to deal with.

In some cases, there is also a sense that the ground may in some way be contaminated by the presence of the body of someone who has done something terrible, as if some essence of them or their crimes remains. It's a human trait that the evolved instinct to avoid or destroy physical sources of contamination becomes symbolic, applied to behaviour or beliefs.

This seems to be the case with Savile, as some families are upset to have their dead relatives buried near him. There is also an implication that the memories of the living will be tainted by the knowledge of who is lying near their dead, that Savile is in some way haunting them. Digging the body up is a kind of exorcising the ghost or staking the vampire.

It will be interesting to see if the contamination stays with the grave and others are reluctant to use it if he is removed.

Separating a rapist or paedophile from society in this way also serves to reassure the living that they and their dead loved ones are good people, untainted, deserving to rest in peace. Savile is not like us. Except that child abusers and rapists are not a separate category of humanity, however much we might like to think they are and try to mark them as Other.

There may also be some kind of expiation of guilt for anyone who should have seen or done something, either in the alleged Savile cases or with other abusers. And society as a whole has failed the victims so society as a whole must be seen to condemn his acts, public opinion now replacing religious censure.

In some cases, this becomes self-righteous outrage, more about being seen to behave in a particular way than achieving anything tangible (like changing laws to protect the vulnerable). This can trigger a kind of mob mentality; although we no longer have physical witch hunts and pitchforks, there is Twitter.

Sometimes there is good evidence, sometimes only rumour and myth. The living can sue for libel, the dead can't - which is why sometimes the truth only comes out after someone is dead and the only recourse is to punish the corpse or the reputation. But sometimes posthumous punishment backfires as the reputation of the punishers is itself destroyed by history.

Savile chose as his own epitaph 'It was good while it lasted'. If the investigations prove the allegations to be true, what will last is the haunting of the living, both the victims and the rest of us in varying degrees. Ritual cleansing by fire or removal or other means may sound primitive or irrational, but sometimes it helps draw a mental line under a life.

11 January update: The police report on the Savile investigation has now been released.