On Death and Dying
Written October 22, 2011
For the past week, I have been teaching a unit on festivals of death: beginning with Hallowe’en, that strange mash-up of the ancient cross-European Celtic Samhain farmers’ new year/harvest festival with odds and ends of other harvest festivals like the Roman Pomona and the perhaps universal practices of small-scale personal divination (fortune-telling), global masking and role-reversal traditions. And, most of all, our intense need to remember, honor, and call on our dead ancestors for
their ongoing advice, protection, and love, without, of course, having them return as ghouls, since they are, as the people of Oz declared of their wicked witch, “ Morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead . . . and she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead. ”
Oh, and, lest we forget the water we swim in—this strange amalgam of global and local Hallowe’en heritage come to us all tied up in a package of opportunistic capitalist marketing of everything scary, or playful, or merely orange and black, from jelly beans to kitchen towels.
This week, the class will explore a few of the world’s many festivals of death: the Mexican Dias de los Muertos, the Haitian Ghede festival, the Nigerian Yoruba Egungun ancestor masquerades, and the northern Michigan Odawa ghost suppers.
Now, amidst this focus on the annual death of our brief summer luxuriance, and the forever deaths of humans, friend and foe, came a death. A death of a man not so very close to me individually or personally, but close to many people who have been close to my husband and me for the past 15 years.
So, yesterday and today, I have been participating in our own received rituals of death: the funeral home rites, church services, graveside prayers, and communal feast—all in honor of a gentle man, an ordinary man, a man like my own dead mother and father, an ordinary man and woman. A man who lived, worked, loved, and died, doing his school lessons and his work, caring for his wife and children, loving his homeland, loving his coffee, his cigarettes, his music, his dancing, his impassioned political discourses, doing the best he could.
I have cried a lot this past week, and I think: I am crying for my own losses. For my father’s joyful intelligence, his self-absorbed internal conversations, our comradely swims and sails, our shared tasks and disputations, walks up and down hills, into woods and quarries, through cemeteries. For my mother’s shrewd, sharp sarcasm, barely suppressed, her quick wit, her wise words, her quiet queenly sedentary ways, our shared coffees and teas and word games, our silently shared uncertainty about life’s truths.
Yes, I know that I am crying, too, for more losses yet to come: the day I bury my brothers, my husband, my friends. And so I talk with my husband about this: don’t bury me—burn my bones into ashes, and scatter them where you will. Or grant my body to a medical school. Or, if you cannot, if you must bury me, bury me in a simple pine box, and give a big party, in a big empty space, so everyone can dance.
In my own internal conversations, I hear Gerald Manley Hopkins’ words repeated over and over throughout these past days, words penned in Lancashire in 1880, 131 years ago, but published in 1918, the year my father was born:
Spring and Fallto a young child Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving? Leaves, like the things of man, you With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? Ah! as the heart grows older It will come to such sights colder By and by, nor spare a sigh Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; And yet you will weep and know why. Now no matter, child, the name: Sorrow’s springs are the same. Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed What heart heard of, ghost guessed: It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.
This afternoon, as we left the post-funereal communal meal, one of my favorite dance partners took my hand, and said, “We must dance.”
This is the wisdom of Haitian men and women.
We dance while we are here.
*********“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, the expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through another medium and will be lost. The world will never have it.” —Martha Graham.