Rituals versus Reality


Burial Rituals As Noble Lies: An Australian Perspective

There is nothing quite so good as burial at sea.  It is simple, tidy, and not very incriminating.

- Alfred Hitchcock

by Niyi Awofeso

Burial rituals serve a variety of functions in maintaining the social structure of human societies.  These rituals comprise common elements, such as being a response to death itself; and a number of differences, including the significance of burials, and belief in the concept of life after death.  Conditioning the differences in various societies are variables such as social class, age, sex, and religious belief.

Based on accounts of burial rituals in Aboriginal and Anglo-Saxon societies in Australia ... burial rituals are essentially noble lies that help survivors of the deceased to live consistently and, eventually, happily with the reality of death, while at the same time facilitating social cohesion.  Noble lies are fictions that appeal to reality of another kind; for without a consistent framework for understanding the meaning of death, life itself might become meaningless for many.  While the content of the noble lies of burial rituals might differ from society to society, the individual and societal significance appear to be universal.  However, the noble lies of burial rituals appear to be transcended by other noble lies, such as those related to suicidal terrorism.

Source: mundanebehavior.org Journal of Mundane Behavior Issue 4.1 May 2003 © Niyi Awofeso and Journal of Mundane Behavior. All rights reserved.

What, exactly, was this article about?

The author says that while death is of course inescapable, individual and societal responses to it differ.  Rituals adopted to dispose of bodies provide clear examples of a culture's attitudes toward death (for example, the whole world seemed to expect a certain level of pomp to surround the burial of Princess Diana in 1997).  Approximately 100 billion humans have died in the last 10,000 years - however, pomp or not, few are still noted by anyone alive today.

Historically, societies developed elaborate rituals for body disposal, though a few appeared not to regard such rituals as important.  During the later Middle Ages in England, it was a Christian's duty to bury the dead.  By the mid-18th century, a coffin had come to be viewed as indispensable for a "decent burial".  Today, elaborate coffins are required and bodies must be embalmed to prove to everyone that the dead had a degree of status.

Buddhists saw death as a cross between cosmic graduation and karmic condemnation; their belief in impermanence helps explain the low priority rituals that surround their disposal of the dead.

Burial rituals in different societies are conditioned by rank, sex, age, social organisation, environmental, moral and religious differences.  Most are merely "noble lies" designed to make family and friends believe dead people still have value.  These noble lies blend values of religion, culture, science, warfare, and the occasional disaster which causes many deaths.  Thus is constructed a schema for the rituals that attempt to keep terror of dying at bay.  Burial rituals are fictions that trick people to "live beyond self-interest, facilitate social coherence, emotional stability, and safeguard public health."  The routines to be followed apparently support survivors mentally - particularly as they are reminded of their own mortality while they reconcile themselves to their recent loss.

A thoroughly mundane view of burial practices is commonly associated with agnosticism because they have no belief in the concept of afterlife.

The author states that he has yet to come across anyone who believes that, once deceased, one's body is merely a mass of putrefying protein and could be fed to lions in the zoo.  He states, "Even those who believe that it matters not what happens to the perishable body, have their heart filled with horror at the thought of human remains being devoured by animals."  Nevertheless, I personally DO feel like I wouldn't mind if my body became food for animals.  Why SHOULD I mind?  I suspect there are others who feel the same.  The author continues, "It is difficult to comprehend how one could care deeply about one’s partner or daughter who lays dying, then suddenly regard her as no more than a piece of putrefying protein as she lay dead."  I believe a refereed journal article should be free of such personal opinions.  A dead body is no longer your partner or daughter - it IS a piece of putrefying protein, and you'd better do something about it quickly - or else nature will.

The treatment of the body of Argentinian-born guerilla fighter Che Guevara illustrates the social, cultural and political significance attached to human remains.  Following his capture in Bolivia on 8 October 1967 by forces loyal to President Rene Barrientos, Che was executed and his corpse "cosmetically enhanced" to prove to the world press that it was indeed his remains (shades of Saddam Hussein's sons!).  Subsequently, Che’s corpse was cemented into an unmarked part of Bolivia’s international airport tarmac.  The symbolism was that he could never "rest in peace."  Unbelievably, the so-called "body" (actually enriched dirt by then, I suspect) was exhumed 30 years later and flown to Cuba for burial.  The author unbelievably states, "Without such rituals, the very existence of the human race as a rational species might be threatened."  So rationality is due to your local funeral director?  No wonder they're paid so much!

The author lists 9 different ways by which the various Australian aboriginal communities disposed of their corpses in pre-colonial times:

  1. interred at full length
  2. lying on one side with the lower part of the legs from the knees folded up behind
  3. trussed up in a bundle
  4. erect pit
  5. placed in a hollow tree and the aperture closed up with a sheet of bark
  6. placed on a high raised platform
  7. body laid out in a cave or cave-like structure
  8. body smoked over a slow fire, then buried
  9. cremation.

Would smoking the body make it more tasty for the lions?  It would feed homeless dogs at the dog pound...

The author states, "Burial rituals in pre-colonial society highlighted social class differences among the deceased.  Usually, the same tribe disposes of the corpses of various classes of people in different ways.  Among the Dungog tribe, for example, when deceased venerable men of distinction died, they were generally buried in what might be regarded as family cemeteries, with elaborate pageant, while the burial rites of ordinary men and females were generally perfunctory."

The way he says "ordinary men and females" - NOT "ordinary men and women" implies that ALL females were considered "ordinary" - which I suspect is true.  Since I would never have been a "venerable man of distinction," perhaps that colours my lassez-faire attitude toward rotting hunks of protein.  All bodies are equal in death, whether aboriginals or colonists recognise this or not.  If the living want to squander their inheritance proving to the neighbours that the newly-departed was truly important, that's their (poor) business.

The author states, "Valued community members’ deaths meant the loss of an element that made the lives of some community members meaningful.  Their world was never again entire after bereavement.  Most Aboriginal people do not get over the death of loved ones; they learn to live with the reality of such deaths."  But this is true for EVERYONE the world over.  What other choice is there?  Suicide?  Madness?  "Aboriginal people learn to live with the sorrow caused by losing those most loved, and to live despite it, making living a richer experience - important ingredients for maintaining social cohesion."  Again, the alternative is _____?

The first European migrants to Australia were convicts or malcontents - the latter group the author subdivides into "idealists" and "the intolerant and greedy".  The boat trip from England, about 13,000 nautical miles, took roughly four months.  Many immigrants died en route and were buried at sea, a method of disposal seen as "un-Christian."  The wealthy were at least placed into coffins before being pitched overboard.  (And this was supposed to accomplish - what?)  The sight of the floating dead undermined some passengers' faith in a supreme being and caused a higher-than-normal percentage of arrivals to be agnostics.  (I would say, "realists".)  The arriving poor tended to live in the bush, a difficult environment.  Many died of dehydration and exhaustion.  Their corpses, if indeed buried at all, were interred with little ritual.  The author states, "An exuberant communal alcoholic wake was a central aspect of bush burials.  Other aspects of bush burials included stoical acceptance of the inevitability of death, commitment to accord human remains a decent burial where practicable, and a casual, non-conformist attitude to burials."  (That sounds imminently pragmatic to me.)  The author, however, says this showed a lack of respect for institutional codes of conduct.  All I can say is perhaps the author needed to be there to fully understand how practical this response was.  The graves were shallow and unmarked, which the author says indicated a belief in "morbid solipsism."  Yet close to 100 billion people rest in what are, today at least, unmarked graves.  Does it really matter all that much?

Death in Australian cities on the other hand was associated with pageantry.  A "good death" needed a "good send-off" (for what, exactly?).  In most cities, churches set the standard for funeral and burial rites.  Most cemeteries were located in churchyards.  Bodies were often held for burial up to 12 days to allow relatives time to travel to the funeral.  From the 1840s fear of the diseases which could flow from those rotting bodies caused burials to be scheduled much faster and allowed some to accept cremation as an option - but not THAT many, as Sydney's Rockwood cemetery is the largest 19th century cemetery in the world.  Elaborate rituals, culminating in a plot with a befitting tombstone, remained the preferred way - because it was thought that that would let the body "rest in peace".  Live a socially correct life and you would earn that "final pageant" when you died - with a degree of pomp that revealed your family's social status.

Of course the wealthy got dignified funerals - while the bodies of the poor and those of prisoners were used as anatomical specimens.

Christian fundamentalists tended to oppose cremation, viewing it as un-Christian and disrespectful to the dead - though some felt God was "capable of reconstructing the body from ashes as from dust" and were swayed by the sanitary benefits.  The first cremation of a European took place in 1895 in Melbourne and was greeted with public disgust.  Nevertheless, the first crematorium opened in Adelaide in 1903, albeit with strict rules to be followed: no one, not even officials, could observe the process.

It took 50 years for cremation to become widely accepted.  Currently, 70% of bodies are cremated.  As cremations have increased, religious beliefs have declined and the costs of full burials has risen.  Concerns about money have curbed extravagant burial rituals; proponents of simple ceremonies are increasingly in the majority.  During World War I, almost 60,000 soldiers died.  For most dead soldiers, a dignified burial was impractical - most were buried in war zones.  (The author calls this "dehumanizing".)  As a compensation, governments established tombs of "unknown soldiers" for those not buried in marked graves.  These tombs serve as symbols of deceased soldiers lives.  (Why not have tombs for "unknown citizens" which do the same, then use crematoria ashes to fertilise roses in public parks?)

The author states, "The Anzac memorial in Sydney, and the war memorial in Canberra, are meticulously maintained by Australian governments as any slight to the physical reminders of the deceased soldiers is a slight to the hearts of the nation..."  (This is a bit of an overstatement.)  He says these memorials "provide some sense of dignity and peace to millions of men and women who have suffered an undignified, violent death in the defense of their fatherland."  But it provides NOTHING to the dead.  They don't care.  He means it gives relatives and friends a symbol if they need one - and apparently many do, memories being insufficient.

The author feels that burial rituals show that the dead once lived (as if we didn't already know that) and show that the dead were loved and are mourned.  He says rituals remind us of our mortality and encourage us to live decent lives so that we can "live on in the hearts of those we love."  But it is your past relationship that accomplishes that, NOT the ritual surrounding your burial.  Can the author really believe what he is saying?  Perhaps he owns stock in a funeral home chain?

Finally, the author states that honouring the memories of the dead means to care about what happens to their bodies as if they were still alive.  Of course, I don't feel that anything he said actually supports that position.  Curiously, he goes on to say that "the expectation that one’s memories would be honoured if one’s life is sacrificed for the defense of ‘a greater good’ is a major motivation for developing a heroic, warrior mentality, including suicidal terrorism".  (This is good?)  He says that terrorist propaganda by Islamic extremists and militant ideologues creates a need for new frameworks that provide a meaning for death that makes living more preferable without destroying social cohesion.  He says, "In this context, former Israeli deputy public security minister, Gidon Ezra, advanced a novel proposition for combating suicidal terrorism - burying the identified remains of Palestinian suicide bombers with pigskin in order to defile the corpse, thus making bombers’ souls ineligible for holy martyr status (Internet communication, 2001)."  The author, however, feels this would not be effective as it would need to be undertaken by a Muslim cleric and none has thus far denounced suicidal terrorism.

The author, Niyi Awofeso, is a physician who also holds a doctorate degree in Health Administration.  He has published several dozen peer-reviewed articles in leading journals.  He has a strong interest in burial rituals in various societies, and how such rituals help survivors to appreciate the meaning of death, and of life.  When he passes on in 2034 (?), he would prefer his remains to be cremated and scattered over the grounds of Zaria Leprosy Hospital where he was medical officer-in-charge from 1990 - 1993.

Source: mundanebehavior.org Journal of Mundane Behavior Issue 4.1 May 2003 © Niyi Awofeso and Journal of Mundane Behavior.  All rights reserved.

Scientist Says Cremation Should Meet a Timely Death

An Australian scientist called Wednesday for an end to the age-old tradition of cremation, saying the practice contributed to global warming.  Professor Roger Short said people could instead choose to help the environment after death by being buried in a cardboard box under a tree.  The decomposing bodies would provide the tree with nutrients, and the tree would convert CO2 into life-giving oxygen for decades, he said.  "The important thing is, what a shame to be cremated when you go up in a big bubble of carbon dioxide," Short told AFP.  "Why waste all that CO2 on your death?"

Short said the cremation of the average male in Australia, during which the body is heated to 850° Celsius (1,562° Fahrenheit) for 90 minutes, produced more than 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of CO2.  And that doesn't include the carbon cost of fuel, or the cost of the emissions released during the production and burning of the wooden casket.

Short, a reproductive biologist at the University of Melbourne, said the contribution of cremation to harmful greenhouse gases was small, and he did not wish to prevent people from choosing how their body was disposed of according to their religion.  But to bury the hatchet with environmentalists, he suggested it would not be a bad idea to bequeath one's body as food for a forest.  "You can actually do, after your death, an enormous amount of good for the planet," he said.  "The more forests you plant, the better."

Source: breitbart.com 18 April 2007

Zoroastrian Disposal of the Dead

Dakhma-Nashini which means "utter destruction of the dead body".  A dead body is considered unhygienic and polluting, both physically and spiritually.  The ancient religion of the Aryans - Mazda-Yasna, or the worship of Ahura Mazda, was revealed to the ancient Aryan prophet Zarathushtra about 8000 BC in Iran - ancient abode of the Aryans.

After a human being dies, according to the Vendidad (ancient scripture of the Zoroastrians) - the evil spirit of putrefaction rushes on the dead body within about 3 hours after death, that is, in the next Geh (division of time) immediately following the death.  After this time, the dead body cannot be touched by anybody except special corpse bearers (Nassesalars) who live apart from the rest of society.  Spiritually and physically, the dead body is most unclean at this time.

The body is bathed in the urine (Taro) of a special white bull - again an ancient Indo-European or Aryan method of purification.  The clothes are destroyed.  A new Sudreh and Kusti are tied on the body - the Sudreh is a religious garment, the Kusti an ancient mark of the Aryan people: a religious woollen cord tied around the waist.  (A close parallel can be found in the Janoi of the Indian Brahmins - who are derived from Aryans.)

The body is now tied up in old Sudrehs; only the face is kept uncovered.  Any person who touches the body at this time has to purify himself by taking the Nahan (religious bath) with Taro, which he has to pour on his body as well as sip of.  The abhorrence the ancient Aryans had for the dead body and its polluting influence is stressed at every step of this ancient ritual.

The special corpse bearers now put the corpse on a marble stone.  Fire is kept alongside burning with sandalwood, and a Diva (lamp) is also lighted.  The Dastur (Zoroastrian fire-priest) now comes and intones special prayers in the ancient Aryan language of Avestan (a sister language of Vedic Sanskrit).

By the evening or the morning of the next day, the Dasturs (priests) pray the Geh-Sarna ceremony.  As per the Vendidad, the soul wanders near the body for the first three days and is as a new-born child, very susceptible to the attack of evil spirits.  The Geh-Sarna ceremony strengthens the soul and helps it to proceed on its way.  No pregnant woman is allowed to be present near the Geh-Sarna ceremony because of the fear that the powerful incantations may have an adverse effect on the unborn child's soul that has recently attached to the child in the womb and is waiting to be born.

The members of the household then say goodbye to the departed for the last time (without touching the body).  The corpse bearers carry away the body on a special iron bier (iron and stone cannot be polluted, wood can) from the prayer rooms and prepare for its final destruction.  In the open, the body is placed on a stone slab and a dog is brought near to gaze on the face of the dead person.  The dog possesses divine sight, and as per Aryan tradition has the power to see and chase away any evil spirits.  The body is then placed by the bearers in a circular well shaped stone structure, called the Dakhma or more recently the "Tower of Silence".  Stone like iron is not polluted and so shields the good earth from the evil of putrefaction.

Tower of Silence (also Dakhma or Dokhma or Doongerwadi), Mumbai
engraving from 1886 book True Stories of the Reign of Queen Victoria by Cornelius Brown

As per the Aryan scriptures, the sun and vultures then work systematically and hand-in-hand to destroy the dead body.  Then rain falls and washes away the dried bones into the sea.  As much as a year is allowed in the Aryan scriptures for this process.  (Contrast this with the burial process where the earth is polluted for at least 50 years and lies shallow and unused for cultivation: the greatest worship of God is cultivation, according to the Aryans.)  Burial or burning of corpses are both considered wrong actions in the Vendidad.  In an earlier Fargad (chapter), Mazda says that they were actions dreamed up by the evil one and taught to humanity to mislead them to pollute the earth and the fire.

Sacred ceremonies then go on for 4 days.  On the morning of the 4th day, by the rays of the rising sun, the soul of the departed person ascends and passes to the "Chinvato-Peretu", the bridge that separates the spiritual (Minoi) world from the physical (Geti) world.  There he meets his own conscience, in the form of a Kainini-Keherpa - the astral form of a maiden.  The maiden is as beautiful; or as hideous as his own works in the world.  The soul is then judged by the divinity Mithra (Meher) and either passes on to Garodman, the abode of songs where Ahura Mazda (God) awaits him or to drujo-deman, the abode of the evil one.  There the soul waits until it is time for the resurrection of all the dead and the final defeat and expulsion of evil from the world, when death and disease and hunger and thirst will be a thing of the past and God himself will come down to the earth, assisted by the final Saviour (Saoshyant.)

The sun, the dog, the flesh-eating bird
these are the ways ancient
to dispose of the dead Aryan -
most holy and commanded by Ahura Mazda.
O Man! away with your pride and arrogance
that refuse to follow the way
of your Aryan ancestors -
it is your science modern that strives
to pollute and destroy,
despite the earth's cries.
Come, all Aryan fellow-men, let us vow
The ancient way of Dakhma-Nashini
pure and most effective, we shall adhere to
As our Aryan forefathers did in Iran.

- from the "Saga of the Aryan Race" by Porus Homi Havewala.

Source: members.ozemail.com.au/~zarathus/dakhma33.html

See also:

bullet Who are the Zoroastrians? (in the section on Society and Culture) - the Zoroastrians of Iran (pre-Islamic) were members of the Indo-European family known as the Aryans...

Funeral Customs

Zoroastrians allow their dead to simply rot or be devoured by vultures.  They consider fire to be too sacred to be put to use disposing of the dead and burial is thought to be a defilement and injury to mother earth.  Others place the body deep in the jungle to be devoured by wild beasts.  In Tibet and among the Kamchatkan Indians, dogs are used for this purpose because they believe that those eaten by dogs will be better off in the other world.

Herodotus tells us that the Calatians ate their own dead.  It was considered a sacred honor and duty of the family.  Queen Artemisia supposedly mixed the ashes of her beloved with wine and drank it.  To this day, certain African tribes are known to grind the bones of their dead and mingle them with their food.

The Zulus burn all of the belongings of the deceased to prevent the evil spirits from even hovering in the vicinity.  Some tribes set up a ring of fire around the bodies of their dead to singe the wings of the spirits and prevent them from attacking other members of the community.  Other tribes throw spears and arrows into the air to kill hovering spirits or eat bitter herbs to drive away or kill spirits that may have already invaded their bodies.

In Japan, it was the custom to insist that 20 or 30 slaves commit Hara Kiri at the death of a nobleman.  In Fiji it was considered correct for the friends of the deceased as well as his wives and slaves to be strangled.  A Hindu practice in India, prior to being outlawed by the British, was known as suttee, or wife burning.  The wife of the deceased was expected to dress herself in her finest clothing and lie down by the side of her deceased husband on the funeral pyre to be cremated alive.  The eldest son then lit the pyre.  The Cochieans buried their women, but suspended their men from trees.  The Ghonds buried their women but cremated their men.  The Bongas buried their men with their faces to the North and their women with their faces to the South.

Modern mourning clothing came from the custom of wearing special clothing as a disguise to hide identity from returning spirits.  Pagans believed that returning spirits would fail to recognise them in their new attire and would be confused and overlook them.  Covering the face of the deceased with a sheet stems from pagan tribes who believed that the spirit of the deceased escaped through the mouth.  They would often hold the mouth and nose of a sick person shut, hoping to retain the spirits and delay death.

Wakes held today come from ancient customs of keeping watch over the deceased hoping that life would return.  The lighting of candles comes from the use of fire mentioned earlier in attempts to protect the living from the spirits.  The practice of ringing bells comes from the common medieval belief that the spirits would be kept at bay by the ringing of a consecrated bell.  The firing of a rifle volley over the deceased mirrors the tribal practice of throwing spears into the air to ward off spirits hovering over the deceased.  Floral offerings were originally intended to gain favour with the spirit of the deceased.  Funeral music had its origins in the ancient chants designed to placate the spirits.

Babylonians, Persians, and Syrians preserved their dead by placing them in jars of honey or wax.  By depriving the bacteria in the body of air, decomposition was prevented.  The Greeks believed that the deceased must make a journey across the river Styx to the land of eternity.  A coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased to pay passage over the river.  A cake of honey was placed next to the body to appease the three-headed dog, Cerebus, who guarded the entrance to Hades.  Interment was delayed 3 days to prevent premature burial.  Cremation came into practice in about 300 BC.

The Romans did not practice embalming as such.  The body would be washed daily for 7 days with hot water and oil.  This delay also was to prevent premature burial.  Funeral processions were held at night to avoid defilement of the living.  The procession was managed by a Designator, who functioned much like the modern day funeral director.  Burial later gave way to cremation.  At one point cremation was forbidden within the gates of Rome because of the smoke pollution of so many bodies being burned at once.

Source: free-times.com from Wyoming Funeral Directors Association Director of Education Curtis D Rostad’s essays “History of Funeral Customs” and “History of Embalming”

Relatives Dig Grave as Cemetery Says They Weren't Expecting Burial

Mourners at a funeral in Leeds had to dig the grave themselves after undertakers forgot to contact the cemetery.  The family of 79-year-old Emmanuel Crawford arrived at the Jewish cemetery on Gelderd Road to pay their last respects.  But the grave had not been dug and the mourners were told they would have to wait at least 48 hours for the burial to take place.  Mr Crawford's grandsons, 29-year-old Adam and Matthew, 25, took matters into their own hands and seized two shovels.  With the help of other relatives and family friends, they carried out the task themselves, says the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Adam, who lives in the Netherlands, said: "It was horrendous.  Eventually I had to get into the grave and pick lumps of soil out with my hands.  I wouldn't wish what we went through on my worst enemy."

The dead man's son Julian added: "For my father to have such an undignified funeral is scandalous."  Mr Crawford died in his sleep in the early hours of Thursday, 5 December and Jewish tradition states bodies should be buried within 24 hours.  The family asked Leeds firm Kleinman Funeral Directors to make the necessary arrangements.  But although its staff contacted the synagogue and organised the service, a misunderstanding meant no one got in touch with the graveyard.  Melvyn Kleinman, who owns the business, apologised.  "In 19 years of acting as the undertaker to the Leeds Jewish community, this is the only time such an error has occurred.  It will never happen again."

Source: ananova.com Monday 16 December 2002

Malaysia Considers Vertical Graves to Save Space

Dead bodies could be buried vertically in part of Malaysia where cemeteries are running out of space.  The radical idea is being considered by the state assembly in central Selangor, where cemeteries are full or approaching capacity, reports The New Straits Times.  Housing and local government committee chairman Datuk Dahlan said the assembly was open to all suggestions and would consider the proposal.  He also said housing developers would be required to set aside one hectare of burial land for every 5,000 residents in their projects.  Burial plots are in high demand in Malaysia because the Muslim majority does not accept cremation.

Source: ananova.com Wednesday 19 November 2003

Standing Room Only at New Cemetery

It will be standing room only for those being buried at a new Australian cemetery that aims to provide cheap, environmentally friendly burials.  Australia's Victoria state government has approved plans for the cemetery at Darlington, 200 km (125 miles) southwest of the Victorian capital Melbourne, where corpses will be buried vertically in body bags - instead of caskets - on grazing land.  "When you die, you are returned to the earth with a minimum of fuss and with no paraphernalia that would affect the environment," a spokesman for Palacom, which will establish the cemetery, told Australian Associated Press on Thursday.  "You're not burning 90 kg of gas in a crematorium and there's no ongoing maintenance costs."  He said burials would cost about A$1,000 (US$781), with bodies held in a morgue in Melbourne and transported to the cemetery in batches of up to 15 in a bid to reduce costs.  Animals would be allowed to graze on the land again once it was stable.

Source: news.yahoo.com  Thursday 28 April 2005 © Yahoo! Incorporated all rights reserved

Mourning a Death

A Tanala woman is comforted while mourning the loss of a family member in the remote Madagascar village of Namahoaka.  The Tanala, like many Malagasy cultures, believe that in the afterlife ancestors play a strong role in the lives of the living, therefore, the dead are often treated with greater respect than the living.

Source: wpni01.auroraquanta.com

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