Sunday, 20 November 2016

Coffins, Caskets and Funerary Fantasies (Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu)

So the agents have cracked the locks, bypassed all security, and crept on silent feet down into the inner sanctum. Then the casket creaks open ...

But what kind of casket?

Ultraviolet, the British vampire drama from 1998, preferred the high-tech approach. Its caskets were more akin to the SBA containers found in the Edom Files: utilitarian high security delivery systems with very specific locking mechanisms. It addresses the one real fear a vampire has: its vulnerability. Penetrating that casket, short of a brick of C4, is not an option, and the electronic lock makes sure snoopers can't open it before the deadline. Unless, as Vaughan Rice (an excellent performance from Idris Elba) discovered, you can sabotage it.

The modern casket as sold by funeral directors is a very high-end affair. Costs can easily escalate into the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Almost anything you can think of, and some things you couldn't possibly imagine, are on offer. After all, the casket is the last purchase you'll ever make as a consumer, so why not make it the best?

The basic design, at least in the States, is broadly the same across the entire range. It's a wedge-shaped box, usually with some variation on a viewing port for the mourners at the wake. The surreal and rather captivating 1932 movie Vampyr features an interesting variation on that theme, with a glass panel in place rather than a movable lid. This allows for an unforgettable moment when the protagonist, who's been sealed up in the casket, stares up at the world from his prison, able to see everything through the glass but unable to do anything about it.

Of course, with cash comes customization. Do you want a state of the art sound system? Perhaps some kind of wireless connection, or a video display? Touchscreen embedded in the casket lid? Or perhaps you like the idea of a fake coffin with fake corpse; perfect for Halloween, but perhaps also perfect as a distraction for those pesky agents.

Then there are those famous Ghanaian artisans with their custom designs. Odd, yes, kitsch, definitely; but undeniably attractive, in their way. I can just picture a Conspiracy head settling down in one of these. Or perhaps ordering a replacement after the last one got blown up in a raid.

Whether or not the casket is airtight will determine the condition of the contents, over time. A wooden casket allows for air to pass through and fluids to drain out, enabling relatively clean skeletal remains. A sealed casket, on the other hand, promotes decay but, without a means of escape, creates corpse soup. Cracking one of these open is an exercise in human endurance; the smell is unforgettable.

Here in Bermuda because of space constraints we tend to bury members of the same family in the same hole. Technically I imagine funeral directors would prefer to call it a vault, but that conjures up images of New-Orleans style opulence that frankly does not describe the end product. It's a hole, with a limestone lid. The caskets are usually wood, allowing the contents and the boxes to decay over time. Cremation never really caught on down here, though there are some that offer the service. Burials at sea are also less common that you might expect.

Though we think of graveyards and funeral homes as the natural repository for caskets and coffins, this isn't always so. As mentioned in a previous post, during the Victorian period it was common for the poor to keep their dead with them in their homes, sometimes for days if not weeks on end, saving up enough money for the funeral. Some Victorians went so far as to keep their coffins with them always, waiting for the moment when they'd finally occupy them.

Thanks to their symbolic weight coffins, and other funerary memorabilia, are often used as art or furniture. The fabled Nothingness, or Cabaret du Neant in Paris, is an example of the type. There you'd be served your poison of choice atop a casket table, admiring the bones and skulls around you. I understand the Cabaret was recreated as part of Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic in New York, which I have never attended but find fascinating.

In Night's Black Agents or Trail, how might a coffin be used?

To begin with as a symbol, perhaps in the home or office of an important character. The Goth cameo is bound to have something elaborate and ebon in her apartment, while the Sculptor or Art Forecaster in the Dracula Dossier may well have a Ghanaian Fantasy Coffin in their workshop or office.

Then as an SBA place of rest. The 1890s vampire is bound to find something Gothic comforting, and have an elaborate casket set up in its refuge. More modern or sophisticated creatures may prefer something technological, along the lines of the Ultraviolet casket referred to earlier. Sound systems, touch screens and other creature comforts are bound to be important.

As a smuggler's hiding spot or an illicit burial device a coffin's unparalleled. You can pack just about anything in a casket, and people frequently do. My personal favorite is The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, though Tintin also has fond memories for me. It's worth bearing in mind that, particularly in the modern era but also to an extent in Trail's 1930s, the coffins themselves can have value. Sarcophagus lids in particular have long been prized by antiquities smugglers looking for a fat, if macabre profit. One such lid features prominently in a tale about the sinking of the Titanic.

Lastly, a coffin makes excellent set decoration. There's a reason why the Cabaret du Neant chose it as part of its ambience; a coffin's instantly recognizable, carries a ton of emotional weight, and allows for some interesting symbolic juxtapositions. Imagine if you will a cultist feast along the lines of Nyotaimori or Nataimori, except this time the naked body is presented in a coffin - presumably one with a removable lid, or perhaps even a transparent or glass lid. Or an Old West Ghost Town in which the inhabitants all wait quietly in their coffins, perhaps ceremoniously placed in the houses and businesses they occupied in life, waiting for the moment to emerge. Imagine a casket that moved of its own accord. A casket from which an ominous knocking sound could be heard, even when completely empty. A casket made of solid silver for a special client, that refuses to be buried.

That's it for today. Enjoy!

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