Unbearable lightness of bodies

Patrick Westwonders why, in a godless age, we should be so obsessed with corpses

When the cult known as Heaven's Gate committed collective suicide in March 1997, they did so in a manner that reflected the uneasy relationship most people have with their bodies. The 39 cult members who ritually ingested a fatal cocktail in a hilltop mansion in Rancho Santa Fe said that their bodies were mere "containers", and that their spirits were in a process of ascending to a UFO that was trailing behind the passing Comet Hale-Bopp. Yet, in each member's trouser pocket, there was a five-dollar bill. This was odd: it seems a little pointless to take money with you on a journey that your body is not going on.

The scandal over the removal of organs from dead babies at Alder Hey Hospital, Liverpool, has shown that we are still confused about what it means to be human. The conduct of Dick van Velzen, the former head of pathology at Alder Hey, seems ghoulish to many; but equally macabre has been the reaction of some of the bereaved parents, who raided hospitals to scoop up the bits and pieces of long-dead children and carry them home in plastic shopping-bags, so as to go through the ritual of burying the remains for a third or fourth time.

It is often said that, with the decline of religion, most people accept that life is mere biology; we have come to think of ourselves through the body rather than the soul. We are now a corporeal society. This is not to say we are more rational; on the contrary, we are like palaeolithic man or the Vikings, attaching a mystical aura to the spectacle of the corpse. The reaction to events at Alder Hey reveals how we have become at once obsessed and terrified by our own bodies: we are no longer quite sure that there is any more to us than the physical.

My own everyday experience as a 26-year-old journalist suggests that even mere talk about death makes young people today feel decidedly queasy. I write obituaries for the Times three days a week. To tell new acquaintances that you make your living principally by writing for the Thunderer's "death squad" is a sure-fire way to bring an introductory conversation to a hasty, awkward halt. "Obituarists don't actually kill people," you have to remind them. The mere mention of death seems to propel young people into a form of ghoulish catatonia. For Generation X sophisticates, once you have died, you have gone: these atheists believe that when the body dies, the person is extinguished with it. Older, usually Christian, people (who are nearer to appearing on the obituaries page) always say: "Oh, what a wonderful job to have." In their eyes, I am charting what is merely a transition between this life and the next.

Atheism has its roots in eastern writings of the sixth century BC, but it was first espoused in Europe two centuries later, by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. He said that, upon the moment of death, the human body is dispersed into atoms. "Death is nothing to us," he said. "For that which is dissolved is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us."

In more recent times, sociobiologists have popularised the notion that man's body is a mere machine with inbuilt obsolescence. At the other extreme sit the theories of Hinduism and Budd- hism, which assert that our bodies are vehicles not for our genes, but for the immortal soul. Between the two extremes sit the Abrahamic religions, which stress the primacy of the soul while revering the body's attachment to it.

The growth of atheism has put an end to communal funeral rituals. Without them, we are more terrified of death than ever. Christian inhumation ceremonies - in which the disposal of mortal remains is secondary to praying for the "repose of the soul" - provided us with an important catharsis. Participating in a burial ceremony reminded the mourners that ashes to ashes was not only part of the divine, but also the natural order of things. Today's bereaved atheists receive no comfort from priests or community; for them, the corpse becomes something wholly macabre, rather than the mortal shell of an eternal spirit.

Our fear of age, as much as our rejection of God, makes us approach death with loathing. What with "the Old Gits" lampooned by Harry Enfield or Richard Wilson's Victor Meldrew, and the growing enthusiasm for euthanasia, it seems that the post-1960s generation do indeed hope to die before they get old. We want to look young, and we wage war against the manifestations of age, such as obesity and wrinkling, through dieting and plastic surgery. We are a society of hypochondriacs, scared about damaging our bodies by subjecting them to alcohol, tobacco or the "wrong type" of food.

We want to perfect the living body - and to keep death at bay. We also demand that the integrity of the body be kept in death. The Alder Hey scandal came only a month after Dr Paul Knapman, the coroner who ordered that the hands of the victims of the Marchioness disaster be severed from their corpses for purposes of identification, was described as "no less than a butcher" by a bereaved relative. Our desire to keep the corpse intact exposes a denial about the process of death: in the grave, after all, a body starts to putrefy within 24 hours and eventually, bar the skeleton, decomposes altogether.

The majority of Britons, sceptical of both science and religion, no longer know how to deal with death - and certainly not with the remains of a dead person. You can be sure that, when the time comes, they would take five dollars to UFO heaven.

Patrick West is a freelance and obituaries writer for the Times