Rituals & superstitions

Last spring my mother-in-law dug up a garden for me. It was ridiculously hard work–the old compost pile where she dug was full of blackberry roots, the buried bottom of a wire fence, and sundry garbage accumulated over we-don’t-know-how-many-decades.


Somewhere in the middle of those decades, someone buried a dog there, and she found half a jawbone, some foot bones, and one vertebra. And the dog’s bone-shaped chew toy. We’ve kept the bones outdoors since then, in our little collection of shells and pretty rocks and other things we pick up on nature walks.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about natural history museums and how much I love them. I love neat displays and old wooden display cases, books full of color plates, and I even like Victorian taxidermy.

I also have a shadowbox sitting in my study, which I have failed to fill up for several years now. So I got the idea that I would move our outdoor nature collection into the shadowbox and hang it somewhere in the house.

The instant I brought the dog bones inside, I got a bad feeling. They didn’t want to be there.

I’m not superstitious–I like to think–so I shook it off and took them to the sink to wash them off. I stuck my finger into the vertebra. And it trapped me. I had to scrape my finger to get it out.

Back to the outside the dog bones went, and the shadowbox was scuttled (again). And I had some thinky-thoughts about death and rituals and respect.

The takeaway feeling was that those bones are not toys. They’re not for me to play with. Someone buried that dog in that garden. Someone had a funeral for that dog. And that gives me certain thoughts about disturbing graves, even for archaeological purposes, and makes me think about at what point public education is more important than private wishes, and at what distance of time the surviving family’s or people’s wishes stop mattering.

So what do I make of my natural history museum fascination now? I have a whole new perspective on bones kept as objects. Because if you have a creature’s bones, what does it say about who owned and loved that creature during its life? What does it say about why the creature lived, and why it died? And who are you to “own” those bones?

And I learned about myself. I am superstitious. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me; superstition is part of human firmware, just like sharing food and telling stories. I’m a scientist, but I’ve never been the kind who dismisses ritual on the grounds that there’s no known mechanism for it to “work”, or who thinks it should be subjected to dispassionate scientific tests. Rituals make us feel better. Superstitions are there to avoid trouble. And because they’re such a pervasive, inescapable part of human behavior, I have to think that a lot of them reflect truth, albeit at a great distance. It isn’t our place to play with bones unless we have a straight, clear understanding of what they are and why we’re doing it.

So. Doggy is outside again. What do I put in my shadowbox?


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