Ghosty and Fragmented Bullet Points on Death and Exile

1. Maureen Mullarkey discusses death and the jolly skeleton.

2. The entire month, of November, as she points out,  belongs to the dead. It’s my favorite month, not least because I was born into it.

3. This is the first November of my life I’ve spent entirely away from home, and it’s very strange to never pass the cemeteries where my grandparents, aunts, sister lie.

4. The threat of unburial is frequent in the Illiad and Odyssey. Priam kisses the hand of his son’s murderer in order to regain the body, and Odysseus tells an enemy that the crows will peck at his rotting flesh, or something like that, I can’t find my books.

5. Unburial is horror for the dead, but what about the living? When we bury the dead we claim them. We claim the dead just because they are ours, and we love them, not because they are productive citizens or because they can feel bodily pain.

6. This seems to me the terror of exile–to be so far from one’s beloved dead. Not the struggle to build a new life, but its formless rawness, the weight of being only oneself and for oneself, existing only in the present. Home is where the burial ground is.

7. Zombie movies are comforting in their action adventure format. They can’t be real if they don’t show the suffocating grief of your dead refusing to recognize you, turning against you. There’s no peace in life or death when that happens, which I suppose is the premise of Zombie-hood. No one ever asks if the world is worth saving, though, and so the films reassure.

8. An unburied corpse is horrible, because he has not been claimed, and might turn against us. The peaceful solidarity of our present moment with our inherited past and inevitable future, of living and dead, depends on our tethering the dead to ourselves. Without the dead we have no “ours.”

7. Emily Bronte calls her ghosty menage “sleepers in the quiet earth,” and we refer to departed Christians as “those who sleep in Christ.” Christ will come to wake them all from sleep, but there’s an interesting range of possibility suggested in dormition. If you wake a sleeper too early, will she sleepwalk? Can you guide her gently back to bed, or will she become angry in her confused dreams?

I understand why atheists reject the existence of ghosts as a matter of dogma, but not why Christians would.

Poetry Wednesday

Aside

 

Poet to watch: Madeleine Fentress, who published this gem at Commonweal recently.

It reminded me of another meditation from a walk-on role in the life of Christ. 

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

 

–T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”