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Life — and its repercussions

by
04 April 2007

Death may have no dominion, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it, says Dave Reason

‘The challenge is to find a way to lift the burden of dying’

Each individual in each human society must confront the challenges that death and loss present to us; so it is unsurprising that we have elaborated a variety of attitudes towards death.

One holds that what distinguishes humanity from animals is that animals fear dying, while we know death. Another insists that death generally appears to us as the death of others; in this view, my own death is not an event within the horizon of my life. All are agreed that one’s own death is, unfortunately, inescapable, as is the death of others.

Easter weaves the theme of death with those of liberation and salvation. It is a good time to reflect on the complex relationships the living have with the dead, and with the not-yet-dead. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin with ghost stories.

In the years following the Second World War, many readers (T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas among them) were charmed by Amos Tutuola’s novels The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Tutuola’s narratives offered them a potent cocktail of European and Nigerian traditions. One of the ingredients that entranced audiences was Tutuola’s portrayal of the relationships between the living and the dead.

An example: the hero might set off from his village, following well-trodden paths, until he reaches a forking of the way, where he sees a figure standing. They exchange greetings. Then our hero asks: “Tell me: are you a man or a ghost?”

Meeting a ghost is no occasion for anxiety, but it’s as well to be clear about such matters. Just like men, ghosts may be benign or malicious, straightforward or deceitful. It is everywhere believed that ghosts, having known what it is to be alive, know what it is that they have lost in dying. It is prudent not to remind them of such things, and to give them no occasion to display their potential for malevolent envy. In Yoruba folklore, once one leaves the familiar ways of the dwellings of the people, one enters not the wilderness, but the bush. Here, the living and the dead make room for each other.

I was reminded of Tutuola’s writing as I was looking through the family photos of some people in rural Cameroon. Among the images were carefully arranged family groups, the generations variously standing, squatting, cradled-in-arms, and seated — not unexpected.

What was unexpected, though, was finding a couple of these images marked, in pencil or ballpoint pen, with crosses. The crosses were placed squarely on the chest of only a few of the figures; in one case, this was not a simple crossing of lines, but a careful perspective rendition of the cross, complete with tufts of vegetation at its foot. These graphic annotations signified that the individuals had died since the photo was taken.

Why treat a photo in this way? Because it is important for those still alive to know, to be clear about such matters. The etiquette of transactions about — and with — the dead among us extends beyond such trivial injunctions as “Never speak ill of the dead.” Inscribing a cross transforms the photographic memories on the sideboard into memos to the living: don’t forget, the dead are still with us. They may well be looking on, overhearing our every word.

But, when shuffling through these family photos, am I not, also, “looking on”? Perhaps I am doing more than exchanging glances with shadows. Perhaps I am exchanging places. A new perception develops: the photo is a harbinger of death. It testifies to what we will all become — namely, impotently elsewhere.

But, when shuffling through these family photos, am I not, also, “looking on”? Perhaps I am doing more than exchanging glances with shadows. Perhaps I am exchanging places. A new perception develops: the photo is a harbinger of death. It testifies to what we will all become — namely, impotently elsewhere.

It gives us a premonition of how the world will look after we die, and, having become ageless, are no longer in it. Silent, and indifferent to the viewer’s presence, a photo presents a dumbshow that renders the spectator a passive, though living, onlooker, a spectre. We may feel implicated, addressed — “Hey, look at this!” — yet are gagged and impotent to act.

We could wish it otherwise, but we can never hold out our hand to the falling figure, never warn the innocent that a trigger is being pulled, as news photos remind us daily.

Cameroonians are not exceptional in their feeling that the dead are always near by, ever at hand. Even “sophisticated” cinema audiences in Europe and the United States do not demur at slipping without a ripple into acceptance of the possibility of mundane ghostly “returns”.

In Pedro Almódovar’s recent movie Volver (“Coming Back”), the setting is the modernised landscape of La Mancha, where Don Quixote’s windmills have been replaced by giant wind-turbines. Here we are shown a community for whom — unremarkably — a dead mother can return. Neighbours believe she has come back to care for a relative stricken by dementia.

Parents, above all others perhaps, have a duty of care even after they have died. As Anthony of Sorouzh has reminded us: “Our life does not end conveniently when we die, even on earth. It continues over the centuries, through heredity and through the by-products of our existence; and we continue to carry a responsibility for its repercussions.”

Where we might make our wills, and so have our wills live on after us, the Spanish mother on the screen takes her burden personally: welcomes, carries, and discharges it herself, dead or alive.

Cultural beliefs that entertain that the dead move among the living admit that there is a natural communion, continuity, and community of the living and the dead. But make no mistake: folklore also insists that the dead should not be confused with the living, or there will be trouble. To share bread or a bed with a ghost drains the human of vitality, and you stand in danger of becoming a ghost yourself: the inventory of disasters is long.

YET THE folk tales’ emphasis on the importance of keeping these categories clear is itself testimony to the widespread conviction that confusion between “living” and “dead” is possible, too. What if I believe that, before I have died, I am already dead? Such puzzles are not confined to fiction, but have their real-life counterparts.

Sometimes, those whom we have come to call “survivors” live in the liminal condition of being neither wholly alive nor wholly dead. We are familiar enough with the stories of those desperate survivors of the Holocaust for whom the suffering in the camps was not at all a “holocaust”, a “burnt offering”.

These were those who experienced this intensely bleak time as one in which their cries went unanswered, perhaps unheard, by a God who could only be indifferent or absent. Survival could be achieved only by withdrawing into a state of numbed nullity, abandoning all meaningful emotional connections with their world, and with their fellows — even with their own children.

Survivors can come to see themselves as the always imminently dead; those who ought to be dead; who might be dead already. Who can speak of this in front of the children, of a meaningless nothingness that is surely too much for them to bear?

In this way, the children learn to house the unspeakable, and live the tomb’s silent emptiness. The trauma of the parents’ generation is passed on to the next, but as a mystery, an opaque enigma, an absence of meaning at the core of existence. One might think that it would be just if our lives ended when we die, not merely convenient.

Mourning properly for the death of others is linked to the ability to grieve properly for our own death — itself a crucial task for embracing life. Day after day, we may procrastinate, or cram and rush, stuffing each day with exciting distractions, and still we will be brought short by the actuality that one today will be our last.

Living, living in the full richness of creation, is experienced as a mirage that shows us an oasis that is always beyond our reach, no matter how far we travel. The fond belief that there will always be a tomorrow makes it impossible to live fully for and with either others or ourselves, as we delude ourselves with the false assurance that those who are alive today will be — must be — alive tomorrow. The challenge is to find a life-enhancing way to lift the burden of dying.

Mourning properly for the death of others is linked to the ability to grieve properly for our own death — itself a crucial task for embracing life. Day after day, we may procrastinate, or cram and rush, stuffing each day with exciting distractions, and still we will be brought short by the actuality that one today will be our last.

Living, living in the full richness of creation, is experienced as a mirage that shows us an oasis that is always beyond our reach, no matter how far we travel. The fond belief that there will always be a tomorrow makes it impossible to live fully for and with either others or ourselves, as we delude ourselves with the false assurance that those who are alive today will be — must be — alive tomorrow. The challenge is to find a life-enhancing way to lift the burden of dying.

Masud Khan, a gifted but maverick psychoanalyst, expresses the problem poignantly. After a year in which his analyst had died, he had lost his mother, and his wife had left him, he wrote: “The hardest thing in human experience is to bury one’s loved objects in God’s earth. [Sometimes] one buries them in oneself and thus becomes a living walking graveyard.”

To keep the dead — others and ourselves — buried inside us is not only a futile refusal to let go of something dear, but is also to cling to death itself, for fear that we lose even that hint of something loved, its having-once-been.

Something — someone — can only be dead that was once alive. Carrying about with us those who wear the mark of death can seem to promise that we will keep memory itself alive, at least. This is a forlorn hope. An obsession with remembering not to forget only condemns us to forever bowing down under the weight of not being able to allow the fact of their death.

The Easter story is the climax of a journey from wilderness to communion to separation-in-death, and return. At the heart of Christ’s journey is a moment of bleak agony, a cry that has the force of revelation. His torment has echoed down the ages: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It reverberates still wherever a void has been hollowed out of a life.

But it is just at the moment of the realisation of utter abandonment that the fullness of loss can be comprehended. It is only by realising this, and by mourning our own death, that the deaths of others can be mourned. Now, nothing is left to cling to but what is given, and what is unfailingly given is God’s loving creation, no matter what.

The force of the narrative demands that Christ must die, so that we can be assured not that suffering is bearable, but that our freedom depends upon accepting that we, too, will die. In understanding this, we come to see that it is our living, and not our death-mask, that demands to be inscribed with the cross. Ever after, each day, each moment, glows in glory, and is illuminated in a feast-day light.

As we know well, the story does not end there. We await the resurrection, and the risen Christ will not carry the dead safely buried within him, but liberate them, also. Nor does it end a little while later, a step or so further along the way, when two of the disciples, trudging away from the scene of Christ’s death, find themselves joined by a companion.

In T. S. Eliot’s vision of our wasteland, this moment provides a promise of water for the parched soul:

Who is the third who walks always

  beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I

  together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking

  beside you . . .

That one is neither man nor ghost, as it turns out, but Christ himself. Comes evening, they share bread and wine — and finally recognise their companion, until then unrecognisable in this unexpected place. Recognising Christ in the stranger, that the stranger is Christ, is enough: the figure disappears.

Christ is risen, and calls us. Bonhoeffer reminds us, moreover, that he bids us to come and die. There is more than a theology of baptism (that having drowned in Christ we will rise reborn) needed to comprehend this call. We must also hear an invitation to give up our need to cling to death while we live.

Although we will die, death does not have dominion, and death is not the measure of all things. It is by transcending the rule of death and loss in our daily lives that we can be truly present and alive to God in this world. The Passion shows us how to live beyond the pale of death.

David Reason is Master of Keynes College in the University of Kent, Canterbury, and a senior lecturer in History and Philosophy of Art.

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