David Attenborough presented a programme on music on BBC Radio 3, music from around the world that he had recorded on journeys filming wildlife programmes fifty and sixty years ago. David Attenborough had received no brief to make the recordings, but when he began to visit remote places and peoples he realised there was an opportunity to good to be missed to make something nd recordings of music of cultures that dated back centuries if not millennia. The stories he told were of peoples who welcomed with enthusiasm the visitors from an outside world of which they knew nothing. The bulky battery-powered tape recorder, with its capacity to replay the sounds of sacred and festive music, was a source of fascination in communities who knew nothing of European technology.
David Attenborough’s encounters included one with a community that held an annual festival of the dead. To the accompaniment of celebratory music, the people brought the bodies of those who had been dead for decades, even centuries. The deceased were wrapped in silk shrouds so that they might view the village and the fields that surrounded it and conclude for themselves that the land was being well-kept and that the people were honouring the memory of their ancestors.
It was an intriguing thought, that a community lived their lives believing they were accountable to former generations for their use of their inheritance. Were such customs to be observed in 21st Century industrial societies, what might be the implications? If contemporary life was placed under the scrutiny of forebears from the 19th Century or the 17th Century, or from any time in the near or distant past, what might be the verdict?
Of course, the opinion of ancestors would depend on which ancestors were chosen, some might hold views very different from others. Forebears who stood in the Parliamentarian army in 1645 would tend to views of the world that might be very different from those who stood with the king’s forces. Forebears who participated in the agrarian unrest of the early 19th Century might be expected to disagree with those who did not question the social order of the time. The simple way to ensure the approval of the deceased would be to choose from their number people whose opinions concurred with one’s own.
Perhaps the community visited by David Attenborough were selective in their disinterment of the dead. Perhaps the outspoken and the critical were left to rest in peace, whilst those taken on the annual perambulation were the pliable, the malleable. Were we to choose which of the dead we consulted, wouldn’t we choose carefully?