The Towering Dead

me and the reaper seranade

Nor for the towering dead/ With their nightingales and psalms

Dylan Thomas, “In My Craft or Sullen Art”

Hamlet describes death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourne/ No traveler returns,” phrases that betoken death’s mystery, a subject so profound that you can almost get away with slipping in a moth-eaten word like “betoken.”

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Don’t say “cheese”

On the other hand, Wallace Stevens designates Death as the mother of beauty.

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Woody Allen pigeonholes it as one of the two things that come only once in a lifetime.*

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*The other is sex

***

My first 3-D encounter with a human’s death happened when I was around twelve or so on a rare Sunday when we’d all gone to church together, even Daddy.  In those days TV consisted of a couple of channels,  so we would occasionally drive for amusement, motoring around and through Summerville, circumnavigating the past –  riding past clapboard houses where we used to live, past our former maid’s dilapidated cottage, past the crossroads where my grandfather’s gas station had stood before it burned down.

On this particular summer’s day, we encountered a cluster of hysterical people on the sidewalk right across the street from Dorchester County Hospital.  The windows of our un-air-conditioned Ford Falcon were down, and as we rolled past, I witnessed a Mahalia-Jackson-sized woman throwing her hands back in the air while screaming over and over, “My Mama left me, My Mama left me!”

As our car crawled on, I caught sight of the outline of the body, already covered, the screams receding as Daddy sped up and drove straight home.

Later that day, we traveled to Lake Moultrie with our neighbors, another rarity, and I saw Mrs. Delasanti’s pubic hair peeking out of her bikini bottoms.

A first for me.  Forbidden.  Thrilling.

So, on that Sunday, I sort of got a peek at both sides of the coin, the tomb and womb, and, unfortunately, the tomb won out.  Death had ruined my day.

“My Mama’s left me, My Mama’s left me!” rang out as I lay me down to sleep that night.

Horace Walpole has described life on this planet about as pithily as anybody: “This world is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel.”

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Mahalia Jackson

***

Over the years, I have become much more of a thinker than a feeler.  I’d like to believe that education, fairly wide reading/traveling, my dabbling in Buddhism, and maturity have brought about my detachment (rather than a callousness acquired from the onslaught of horrific images I’ve been bombarded with in over a half-century of a media-saturated life:  JFK’s shattering skull, Vietnamese monks immolating themselves, starving African toddlers with bloated bellies, Donald J Trump raising his hand to take the oath of office).

Of course, since that first encounter with death, I have witnessed others, loved ones, shuffling off their mortal coils. As I held my mother-in-law’s hand as she was in the thrall of dying, she looked up at the ceiling, gazing intently at whatever she saw up there, and said, squeezing my hand, “Rusty, this is overwhelming.”

My beloved Judy had a harder time, though mummified by morphine, her breathing labored,  yet right before the end, she quieted down, and I recited to her over and over “may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” and I’m also almost positive she was at least dimly aware of my presence and words because she sort of smiled for awhile before she became still.

***

I have an oncologist friend who once told me that out there (wherever that is) lurks enormous amounts of anonymous funding for a dedicated (if not fanatical) group of scientists/physicians who believe that they can conquer aging and death-by-disease, a prospect that frankly gives me the heebie-jeebies.  In that world, all deaths would be accidental, the afterlife a occupancy-challenged condo.  I imagine suicide rates would skyrocket. How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable would seem the never-ending daily routines in that Malthusian nightmare of a world!

I told my friend, “They don’t know the story of the Sibyl.”

“No they don’t,” he concurred.

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Translation: “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.”

***

No, I believe that Wallace Stevens got it right:  Death is the mother of beauty.

Who would trade his or her short-lived ability to discern beauty for the undifferentiated undying existence of amoeba and paramecia, or prefer the perfect two-dimensional monotony of prelapsarian Eden to the depth and complexity of postlapsarian Babylon with its gardens full of fading flowers and kiss-stealing star-crossed lovers?

Biologically speaking, sex is what creates diversity, and its cost is death, the cessation of being, or, as Philip Larkin put it in “Aubade”:

        [. . . ] no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round.

Death for sex, not a bad trade off by my reckoning.

Unlike Larkin, death holds no special dread for me.  Although I don’t believe in an afterlife, the idea of having my short-leased indestructible matter recycled into another form appeals to me.  I think a burial at sea sounds exquisite – a quick re-entry into the animal world via ingestion.

In this interim between womb and tomb – let us be thankful to have ended up here and now and agree with Dylan Thomas that wise men at their end know dark is right.

Though, rather than raving as Dylan Thomas suggests, I’d like to think of myself in those final instants as surrendering to the fitting inevitability of it all.  To try to enjoy the fleeing images of my consciousness as they’re jettisoned into nothingness.

After all, form is emptiness and emptiness form.

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The Mother of Beauty

I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.”

Petronius, The Satyricon.

From man’s blood-sodden heart are sprung
Those branches of the night and day
Where the gaudy moon is hung.
What’s the meaning of all song?
“Let all things pass away.”

Yeats “Vacillation”

 

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

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In the catalogue of alienations we Late Empire citizens suffer – estrangement from nature, God, our neighbors, ourselves – our estrangement from death is often omitted. We no longer encounter death on a daily basis. Most of us don’t raise chickens to wring their necks, pluck their feathers, excise their entrails. When our loved ones die, we no longer remove their clothes, wash their corpses, and dress them for one last family photo in the parlor.

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Of course, our lack of exposure to death makes it much easier to lock it away down deep in the cellar of our consciousness, which might not be such a bad thing given that nothing’s more life negating than death obsession. On the other hand, our isolation from the cold hard facts our ancestors dealt with – butchering animals, infant mortality, etc. – might have contributed to a delusion many seem to suffer, i.e death is unnatural.

A few years ago, an acquaintance’s father, a man approaching ninety, was lying comatose in a hospital. Each day, on Facebook this acquaintance updated his father’s situation, which, not surprisingly, was rather uneventful – the opening and closing of an eye, a sense from a nurse that the old man experienced discomfort when bathed. My acquaintance and visitors read the Bible to him aloud as they sat and prayed for a miracle. This acquaintance battled his father’s physicians who wanted to transfer him to hospice care while the son perceived opening an eye as a harbinger of “the complete recovery” for which he so ardently prayed.

Most of the Facebook commentators were essentially enablers writing messages like “Sounds very encouraging!!! The doctors could be totally wrong……the body can heal in ways that only God knows” or “That’s great. God is in controll” (sic) or “God is the ultimate physician:-).”

A contempt for science and doctors ran through those Facebook posts, and the commentary that followed. No wonder people don’t believe in evolution or global warming if they believe a comatose man dying of an infection brought on my the removal of a cancerous lung tumor could very well attain a complete recovery and enter robustly into his ninth decade.

dead doe in a frozen pond in North Carolina

dead doe in a frozen pond in North Carolina

However, much more horrible than death would be eternal life in an ever aging husk of a body. Not only did the Sibyl at Cumae consider it a drag (see above), but we also have corroborating evidence from Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale.” When a trio of churls accost an ancient man and ask him why he still has the gall to remain alive, he replies,

Not even Death, alas! my life will take;
Thus restless I my wretched way must make,
And on the ground, which is my mother’s gate,
I knock with my staff early, aye, and late,
And cry: ‘O my dear mother, let me in!
Lo, how I’m wasted, flesh and blood and skin!
Alas! When shall my bones come to their rest?

Why, I wonder, would such devout Christians want to forestall the eternity of bliss that awaited that good man? And the father was a good man, a great provider devoted to his family and his God.

The answer, of course, is love.  Most of us love our parents.  We don’t want them to go.  I miss my own father’s sardonic witticisms, my mother’s hoarse cackle of a laugh. My acquaintance devotedly loved his father and didn’t want to think of living life without him.

Is that so wrong?

[cue Evangelical voice]: Let us turn to Ecclesiastes 3:1-4.

To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose under heaven.

A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted . . .

Like I said, our aged loved ones’ passing is melancholy, and we miss them when they’re gone. I have had a couple of dreams about my mother recently, and I awake missing her. Nevertheless, her time had come, and she was rather fortunate given that she didn’t have suffer for long the feebleness that Larkin descries in “The Old Fools.”

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don’t (and they can’t) it’s
strange: Why aren’t they screaming?

Yep, there are worse things than death.