On A Swiss Approach To Funereal Times: The Culture and The Biome
When a child is born there are usually a few questions that come right on the proverbial heels of the announcement. Are the mother and baby healthy? Boy or girl? How much did they weigh? How long was the labor? And was the birth cesarean or natural? Certainly there are others.
These questions, while seemingly perfunctory, are a kind of wax poured into a mold, a negative impression. A marking of what isn’t there as much as they are worthy questions themselves. In another time these questions wouldn’t even have to be asked. You would have been close enough to the people who were dear to you and you would have heard the cries of labor. And you would have heard the mutterings of the midwives about the gender and the weight and the stories or birth or the exquisite normalness of it. And also these questions might embody a kind of longing as well. Hidden even to the person themselves. This longing for, this wishing. Wishing we could have known sooner, for wanting to be closer and have a bigger stake.
The question about cesarean versus natural is also an interesting one. It might signal any number of things but there is a notion that a natural birth is better if you can manage it. There is much to say about the medicalization of birth and the inclination towards cesareans. But one of the reasons a natural birth is preferred is the jump start of the immune system that the infant gets during birth. This is called the ‘birth microbiome’ and while it is not strictly determinative of health it is aligned with better health outcomes. If you don’t have to be denied access to it, you’d want it.
One of the many heartbreaks of this virused time is the emotional wreckage that so many have had to tend to about their loved ones dying alone. Of not being able to be there in those waning hours when the body starts to release whatever the animating force was. Or the animating force starts to leave and the body stays. Or the two start to draw apart from each other. I don’t know how it goes.
So there is this birth biome. I also wonder if there might be a death biome as well. There was a time where it would be de rigeur to be with our people as they died. To hold their bodies, kiss their cooling cheeks, stroke their hair, wash their bodies for burial. Getting an inoculation of a birth biome prepares us for dealing with the maintenance of living in the expanding and greening world. Maybe it is that contact with this death biome that allows us to grieve better and to know the shape of a world that withers for a time. There are a host of chemical changes in a body as it dies and maybe the death biome is an actual cascade of physical chemicals though my own sense of it is that the death biome is more subtle than that. But I don’t know for sure.
Maybe this is what people who don’t get to be with their dying kin are grieving for…for the loss of that chance for that tactile expression and reception of their tears. Maybe they don’t even know they are grieving for that. Certainly there are other griefs too. There was a time when cesarean births meant certain grief. The mother was dying and the last ditch effort to birth the child was the sign of tears to come. While the surgery is allegedly derived from his name, Julius Caesar, even though it is very unlikely he was born this way, there have been cesarean births for long before him documented in scriptural commentary, folklore, and myth.
What seems to be the first written example of a woman actually surviving a cesarean during birth comes from the year 1500 where a Swiss farmer, Jacob Nufer, performed the surgery on his wife after thirteen midwives couldn’t deliver the baby. And so to Switzerland we go to see a vanishing holdout of a kind of culturemaking around death.
The town of Grimentz in the Val d’Anniviers in Switzerland is high, craggy, and hard to get to has an ancient cheesemaking pedigree. The farmers here would take their cows, bred for a life at altitude, to the lush mountain pastures and make huge wheels of cheese with the abundant summer milk. But the summers were short and the growing season was short too. These wheels of cheese would be critical food during the harsh winters. Shaved onto hard bread crusts and savored. Every farmer had all the materials they would need to make cheese. Everyone would have had at least a small underground hutch as a make-do cheese cave and certainly plenty would be aged and saved for feasts. This is the way it has been in Switzerland for at least two thousand years.
The connection between the cow and life and living was ensconced in the High Swiss culture. And so it was fitting that this cheese making, this devotion to honoring the cow would be wrapped up in their understanding of death as well. In Grimentz, this manifested in the form of properly elaborate funerals. After a death of anyone, of any age, the bells of the deceased’s cows were removed for a time, so that the animals, too, could mourn. The “picnic of the dead” was added to every casket, which included a bottle of wine, bread, and cheese as well as boots for the dead so the spirit could continue to walk, well-shod, on their way back from whence they came.
The same foods comprised the all-important burial meal, which made for the beginning of the reconstitution of the community after the unwanted severence. One of the sayings of this poor town is “Come to the meal, because the dead man has left enough.”
Leaving enough required advance planning. It meant that every single person who made cheese in their life had to reckon with a big, human making thought. They thought that they would have to take their milk and forgo some of the sustenance it would provide so that the people who are dear to them could have something to eat. They might not even know who would be alive at their funeral. And so they might go a little bit hungry one year and leave this wheel of cheese in their small cheese cave. And every time they ate their regular cheese, or their feasting cheese, they would have seen this other cheese that was never for them to eat. Drying slowly. Getting harder. And when the time came, and surely it did. These wheels, whether 10 years old or 85 years old were chiseled open and eaten and washed down with the local wine. And the person was well remembered. Their labors and their hungers and their carriage in the world were all there, summoned by the community. This ‘funeral cheese’ is a kind of momento mori, a labored over remembrance of death, but it is more than just that. It is a memory of kinship, it is a memory of a village-minded approach to being carried and being fed.
While it may seem that it is inevitable that we will die it isn’t always apparent in the way that we carry ourselves in our days. Is it mandatory that you make a wheel of cheese for your friends and family to eat at your funeral? Of course not. This is but one way to remember and to labor towards that remembering. But it is not inevitable that we will be able to be in the presence of the death biome of our loved ones. It is not inevitable that we will be able to be there at all…virus or no virus. Would all these folks weeping that they can’t with their loved ones at death be somehow grief-free if there was a wheel of cheese that the person had made for them? No. But what a thing if there was. Or something like it.
And so I wonder, what can we labor for and with to speak towards this?
Is Primal Derma some balm for all this? Also, no. But it might be part of a remembering of how honoring death is hand in hand with loving and affirming life and that there are old and cultured ways of receiving this. These ways can’t simply be replicated to somehow magically relieve us of our griefs and our burdens but we might draw inspiration from them for new kinds of labors to remember the same.
Thanks so much for your ongoing support and willingness to support this little venture in this time and all my wonderings.