FUNERAL RITES AND MONUMENTS.
THE only occasion on which the Colymbians issue in any considerable numbers from their watery abode, and appear on land, is when they attend the funeral of some defunct Colymbian.
Diseases, as I have said, are almost unknown among them, owing to the care exercised in rearing only children who are pronounced absolutely sound by the competent authorities. Life below the water is extremely conducive to health, the clear pure water prevents all epidemics and infectious diseases, and keeps all the functions of the body in perfect order. Even accidents are almost impossible; for the heaviest weights fall on the body as softly as a down cushion; and if, for example, a child falls out of a window, it only mounts quietly to the surface of the water. When they die it is almost always of old age, and their burials are conducted with a certain amount of pomp and ceremony, varying according to the status occupied by the departed during his life.
The corpse, if of a poor person, is enveloped in a shroud formed of the fibres of a tough grass-like seaweed that grows in profusion in certain parts of the lagoon; if of a wealthy person, it is encased in the shells of large turtles, skilfully put together, so as to form a very elegant coffin or casket. The funeral arrangements are made by a company of undertakers, by whom the body is conveyed on shore, attended by the friends of the deceased, who don large cloaks and hats made of palm-leaves, and form themselves into a procession which accompanies the body up the side of the volcanic hill, to where a large crater displays its yawning mouth, from which issues, at all times, a column of smoke, coming from unknown and unfathomed depths. Near this crater stands an immense crane, from the top of which depends a long chain, supporting a kind of scuttle, on which the corpse is laid. The chief mourners, at a given signal, launch the scuttle with its burden into the air; the undertaker's men, at the same moment, work the machinery of the crane, which swings round, and by the impetus thus given, the corpse is accurately projected into the yawning abyss. In a few minutes a bright flash of fire and a puff of dark smoke announce to the assembly that the combustion of the corpse is completed, and the friends of the deceased slowly descend the hill, and on attaining the water's edge, drop their cloaks and hats and plunge beneath the clear cool water. Sometimes a short speech is made at the crater's mouth, eulogistic of the departed friend; but the discomforts of the brief sojourn on land make them cut the ceremony as short as possible, in order to regain, with all speed, their more congenial element.
The ease-loving Colymbians found these funeral processions so irksome, that they had set to work to make a railway from the sea-side to the crater's mouth, and it was nearly finished when I left the country. It is on the atmospheric system, and is to be worked by one of the tidal machines. When completed, the mourners will be conveyed in tanks to the top of the hill, and when that is the case, one of my friends remarked, a funeral procession will be quite a pleasant affair, in place of, as at present, a terrible penance to the poor mourners.
The first funeral I witnessed in Colymbia was a dreadful shock to me. There was something so repugnant to all my English ideas respecting the sanctity of death, and the respect due to the corpse of a departed friend, in this grotesque procession up the burning hill, and the unceremonious projection of the body into the horrible smoking cavern, that I could not help expressing my horror and disgust at the whole business to the friend who had brought me there.
"To see the corpse of a beloved friend or relative chucked into the jaws of a fearful hole, as though it were the body of a dead dog, seems to me to be subjecting it to the utmost dishonour. Why not bury your dead in the ground, and mark the spot with a stone, so that you may know where the loved one lies, and occasionally come and pay the tribute of a tear at the spot where all that is mortal of him remains?"
My friend, who had the reputation of being a shrewd man of business, but who, believing his especial forte to be philosophy, had assumed the name of Plato, replied:—
"Your terrestrial prejudices disqualify you from seeing the beauty and appropriateness of our burial custom. You should know that it is generally believed that the early races who inhabited these islands are supposed to have been addicted to cannibalism, a supposition that receives confirmation from the discovery of gnawed human bones in various parts of the land, in connection with the rude flint implements of an early and barbarous people. As the Colymbians advanced in civilization, they became possessed with an extreme horror of assimilating any portion of the mortal remains of their fellow-creatures. They knew that if they buried their dead in the earth, the corpses might be dug up and preyed upon by some of the wild animals of the land, which might afterwards be used as food, or even if they escaped this calamity, still the decomposed elements of the body might nourish the plants that grow in the soil, which might subsequently be used as food, and thus we should be eating our friends and relatives at second hand; and in the bread-fruit we ate, or the juice of the orange we sucked, we might be partaking of elements that originally entered into the composition of our deceased fellow-men. In order to avoid such a horrible banquet, it was resolved to employ the means offered to us by nature for effecting the instantaneous and perfect combustion of the dead, and insuring the complete destruction of the material portions of our fellow-countrymen. The gases into which these are transferred issuing from the burning crater in the form of flame and smoke, as you just now saw, are wafted high into the air, and cannot be used in the nourishment of the plants that supply us with food. We thus avoid the horrible iniquity of preying upon our fellow-men. As for your idea of finding any pleasure in visiting the spot where the bodies of our friends are interred, that is mere sentiment. In your grave-yards you do not expose the bodies of your dead, but cover them up with many feet of earth; so when you visit the spot where they are buried, you only see the earth and the grass that grows thereon; and you know that after a short time the body is no longer there, but has been decomposed into its chemical elements, which rapidly escape in all directions. Your sheep and your oxen browse upon the grass that derives its luxuriance from these elements of decomposition, and you eat these animals, and assimilate the flesh, which is chiefly made up of what previously entered into the composition of your fellow-men. Such palpable cannibalism would be infinitely shocking to our feelings, and our mode of burial avoids this desecration altogether. We never think of disposing of the dead bodies of our domestic animals in any such manner. They are merely buried in the earth, where they afford sustenance to the plants, or are thrown over the reef into the ocean, where they are speedily disposed of by the sharks and other fishes which swarm around us, and no sentiment forbids us to partake of these plants and fishes as food."
I could not help remarking that the utter destruction of their mortal remains would be a grievous disappointment to future ethnologists and anthropologists, when the Colymbian race should be extinct; for that it would prevent them determining whether the extinct race was dolichocephalic or brachycephalic, a point to which the present representatives of these scientific men seemed to attach the greatest importance. He did not seem to be greatly concerned by the inevitable disappointment of these future philosophers.
Though the Colymbians are so strangely indifferent as to the final resting-place of their dead friends and relatives, and attach no sort of value to a grave, but rather hold such a thing in abhorrence, they are by no means averse from erecting monuments to the memory of their deceased worthies. These monuments give fine opportunities to the sculptors and architects to display their genius and taste. A statue is a common form of these memorial monuments, and I am bound to say that in their attitudes or poses, as well as in the beauty of their forms, the statues of Colymbia far excel anything we see in our English towns. The statues are never represented as draped, but always nude. They are made of a certain fine porcelain, coloured so as to resemble nature, the flesh tints being well rendered, and the eyes and hair of the proper hue. The attitudes of the statues are very various. I never saw any thing at all resembling the statues of illustrious men we have at home, who are either habited in the classic toga, or the ungraceful clothes of the period, and who generally stand awkwardly enough, with one hand planted above the hip, and the other holding a sword, a roll of paper, a book, or some other thing to indicate the profession of the person represented. A draped figure and a standing attitude would have appeared dishonourable in the eyes of a Colymbian, as it would have seemed to represent an inhabitant of the land, which was to his mind always connected with something vulgar, if not infamous.
In Colymbia the sculptor does his best to represent his subject in the prime of life and the perfection of human beauty, engaged in some one of the sports or exercises that take up so much of the time of the Colymbians, and show off their fine proportions to such advantage. Thus there is no tameness in the attitude of the numerous statues that adorn the lagoon; and a stranger, unaccustomed to the ways of the people, might have thought they were representations of acrobats at work.
I do not think that a faithful likeness of the deceased is attempted; indeed, as the Colymbians all die in advanced life, and the statues always represented them in the pride and prime of manly or womanly beauty, it is impossible that an accurate likeness could be always attained; still it has often happened that the statue was executed at the instance of admiring friends, during the life of the subject, and when he was at the height of his beauty. In such cases a fair likeness might be obtained; but in all cases the sculptor idealized his model, and attempted to improve on the graces with which nature had endowed him. These statues, though executed during life, are never erected in public places until after death, as it is a maxim among the Colymbians that it can be predicated of no man that he is worthy of a monument until he is dead.
Other memorial monuments they have in abundance. Elaborate architectural structures, built mostly of various coloured glass and precious stones, whose transparency and brilliant colours are much enhanced by being in contact with the pure crystalline water of the lagoon, and which form beautiful objects amid the generally dazzling white coral edifices around.
One of these structures particularly impressed me. It was in the form of a kind of open temple or shrine. It stood on a sort of pedestal or platform, of smooth dome-like shape, formed of various coloured marbles, arranged in a simple but graceful pattern. On the apex of this dome stood the shrine. The base of it was of a simple circular form, deriving its chief beauty from the exquisitely harmonized colours of the agates, jaspers, lapis-lazuli and other coloured stones of which it was composed. From this pediment rose a number of exquisite pillars of ruby-coloured glass, fretted over with beautiful figures in opaque white glass, representing many of the occupations and amusements of the Colymbians. The capitals of the pillars, which were of no order of architecture known to us, were all various, and represented various groups of beautiful seaweeds, treated in a conventional manner. These pillars supported a deep architrave, which again gave an opportunity for the display of the builder's perfect skill in harmonizing the colours of brilliantly-hued stones. The general form of the roof of the shrine was a dome. It was formed of many pieces of variously coloured glass cut into innumerable facets. It looked splendid from the outside, but when one entered the temple, the sun being high in the sky, the brilliant flood of gorgeously coloured light that streamed down the roof had a most wonderful effect; it was the poetical realisation of colour without form.
The Colymbians appeared to me to understand the harmonies of things better than we terrestrials do. Their highest form of speech, as I have already said, is the perfection of harmonized sounds; their arrangement of colours is equally perfect. Their grouping of figures, whether the living human figure, or their statuary, or their architectural devices, shows a marvellous acquaintance with some laws of harmony that are almost unknown to us, or only very partially known to some. To the Colymbians these laws seem to be as familiar as the first principles of mechanics are to our engineers, and they are as incapable of producing an inharmonious result as our best engineers are of building a bridge or a house that would tumble down as soon as the scaffolding was withdrawn. They believe that there is a general law that governs the harmonious combinations of all sensual objects, and that this general law lies at the root of, in fact constitutes, that unwritten code we term "taste," A book I met with, which was written by one of their most intelligent authors, was called "The Correlations of the Harmonies of all Sensual Impressions," in which the author attempted to reduce all the harmonies of sensual impressions to one general law. Whether he succeeded in this I am unable to say, as the book was too deep for my thorough comprehension; but as it was very highly spoken of by those most able to appreciate it, I presume the author had accomplished his task satisfactorily.