Friday, January 31, 2014

Bones, Baubles, Irrelevancies

The interest we’ve seen, during the past year, in bones of centuries-gone kings such as Richard III and now that possible fragment of Alfred the Great – and, indeed, the perennial interest humankind has in the remains of our dead, has had me thinking about this most singular form of artifact.  One of the most influential religious faiths history has ever seen has institutionalized the reverencing of dead martyrs’ bodies, from proposing incorruption and corpses’ divinely sweet fragrances as evidence of saintliness to prayers offered before knucklebones and holy f*reskins.  It is not merely the entombment, nor even the spiritual care, of the dead which seems to drive us, but that ineffable affinity humans have for transforming the material into the mystical.

Our attraction to “things” and “stuff” has always been a double-edged sword.  There are epochally powerful religions formulated *against* attachments to the material world, warning against earthly attachments.  And yet, even those faiths have yielded art and artifacts throughout history; indeed, the destruction of Buddhist statues can be decried as a crime even as the veneration of relics may be derided as idolatry.

Human beings are a fascinating lot – and so many of us contain both these impulses:  the resistance to materialism we think on one hand ought to guide us … and the pathological desire to collect possessions and experiences with objects, which sometimes also takes on a moral overtone, or gains traction with sentiment.  How many families have we seen, who come to blows over who-gets-what when a loved one (or, at least, a family member) dies?  How many secrets have been kept, protecting some line of inheritance or material “equality” in division of such spoils?  My brother and I both have had conversations with our mom, about concerns she has that each of us should be treated equally.  We might have cared about that when we were kids (or perhaps it was only me …) – but as we’ve grown older, we’re just grateful she’s with us.  In the end, his daughters will get it all anyway – heh.  Much as I love my pets, they won’t do any good with the perfectly baffling array of vintage costume jewelry I’ve amassed in my lifetime (and, indeed, I imagine my nieces won’t have much use for many of the bits, bobs, and baubles of my estate, when it comes to it).  My mom might fret about who will get what, or perhaps what the fate may be of things she has strong emotional associations for, and wants to see those emotional value-settings continued – “this was a ring your grandfather gave me” or “this was your great-great aunt’s piece of farm equipment” and so on – but our family may not have the stamina for attaching the same values to things that were held before us.

One of those things I know we do hold onto, though – is my father’s remains.  This is not a single body in a casket, but a parcel of ashes – each of us has a small amount, and the rest we entombed in a columbarium.  Dad has graced, since his death, the waves off a sacred parcel of coast in Hawai’I, a certain place where his sister lived, my grandmother’s casket, a few baggies, a box with a dragon on it, and whatever sacred vessels my mom and my brother have found for their concrete memory of his person.  I once defiled a piece of furniture owned by my beloved Jewish cousin, my best friend, a table given to me by her and now rather un-kosher, having had a dead man’s ashes sitting on it.  She suggested that the ritual with a spotless red calf would be a bit much to “cleanse” something merely touched by a Gentile she loved so much herself – and yet, even our awareness of this symbolic uncleanliness speaks again to the stuff of death, its ceremony, its – please pardon me, I don’t mean to make a joke – undying presence for us all.

There is a Donald Harington character, Eli Willard, who lives long, long – beyond the normal expectations of our lifetimes – and who, after he passes on at last, is preserved and enshrined in a glass casket.  For the century after his death, Willard’s body is variously exhibited, hidden away, lost, found, treated as a curiosity, as a talisman, and – at long last – he is put to rest.  In that earth to which so many of us expect to return when we die.  Eli’s material presence is thematically, philosophically powerful; magical.

My dad’s presence is closer to the ground, for me – I don’t pray to him; I don’t pray through him.  And yet, the day he died, I came instantly to understand and appreciate many cultures’ practices of ancestor worship.  I pine, sometimes, for the hope he could even only intercede in my life, if we may no longer participate in it together.  But that is selfishness, and vain magic at that.  I don’t turn to his little dragon box when I am in confusion, nor sit with it to the strains of Important Music and tears and candlelight.

But I have that box.

I have the painting of Einstein one of his students once gave him, too.  There are objects, important objects – throughout my life and home – born of the relationships in my life, and born of their own relationships, inherited by me.  My grandparents’ wedding portrait (two separate photos actually, merged and softly hand-tinted, framed, and so long a part of my family I hardly know where all it has hung and hidden), the pictures drawn and painted by my mama’s mother, the furniture which dates back, some of it, something like ninety years.  We are all artifactories, and not least of those Things we leave behind is our bodies themselves.  Even things left long before we die – that box with my hair in it, from when I was a little girl – and some of my mother’s.  Baby teeth, kept in little keepsake boxes.  Fingerprints, baby footprints, plaster casts, bronze baby booties, the lines on a wall showing what child was how tall, when.

We record and enshrine our bodies even before our souls depart them.  We even entomb spirit without body; empty, and false, graves abound around the world, throughout history.

The Cenotaph of Abraham
Image:  Wikimedia

But it is the stuff of death we protect most fiercely.  The furore over Richard’s authenticity, the deep excitement over Alfred’s purported hip … we don’t care because we care so much about the royals themselves.  We care because our stewardship of the dead, itself, never dies.  How many nobles the world over have been buried, exhumed, and reconsecrated unto the ground centuries later?  Why is it Oliver Cromwell’s decapitated noggin has its own Wikipedia page?  Because we use these bodies – these parts – both to mark our care and disposal of those we feel matter for good or ill; and we use our observation of their deaths to mark how it *is* we feel … and how we felt before.  Veneration comes and goes.  Our need to reflect that veneration – or desecration (read that article on Cromwell’s head to understand the power of vengeance, even upon the dead) does not.

I am interested to find out whether the hip bone might be Alfred’s.  Not because of the artifact’s eventual fate (still, intriguingly, unfolding before us, a thousand years and more since his life expired), but because its PATH is itself a fascinating story.  As Eli Willard’s life after death is.  As the paths, and analyses, of every mummy we’ve ever disturbed and peered at with questions beyond the relevancy of those who preserved the remains.  The story of Otzi is riveting, compelling.  It’s science, but it only matters to us because we reach out to Otzi as humans – as those seeking to understand what went before, to reassure ourselves of what may come after.

There are those of us who might relish the idea of being found in a thousand – in ten thousand – years from now, being able to tell, by our persons, something of who we were, of where we lived and what mattered.  There are those for whom the idea is blasphemous, anathema.  Our own studies of the ancient dead are hardly beyond ethical questioning – no matter how fascinating I find these inquiries, I still know what it means to disturb those who should be at rest (to disturb cultures, and dust long settled – the dust to which we all will return).  I would not mind, myself, being the subject of such curiosity.  But I will perhaps leave no anatomical artifact behind – as someone dear to me once pointed out, it’s not like there’s anyone to visit my grave.  And graves themselves are a real estate issue in our world, with implications and ethics all their own.  It might be nice to have myself buried biodegradably, and make such questions moot.  But I may become ashes myself, eventually invisible and un-study-able.  Perhaps I can convince myself there is inscrutable power in being thus ineffable, heh.

What will become of that little dragon box with my father in it.

What will become of me.

When it comes down to it, I’m not sure I care very much at all.  Even vain as I am, it’s not like I’ll be here to enjoy any fate – or revile it – my earthly remains may come to.  The idea of occupying a little clay box, unregarded, at one of my nieces’ homes, seventy years hence, doesn’t appeal to nor revulse me – it just seems irrelevant.  (What THEY need of me, they have always had, and that has nothing to do with Things and Stuff.)  I don’t even think about what my books will mean to anyone, once my body and my estate dissipate and fade away.  Immortality means nothing to me – if it did, I would have had children, I imagine.  (And yet … here I am, blogging my blithering brains away …)  The stuff of my death, as much as the stuff of my life, may go where it will and I’m not going to fret now nor in the hereafter about that.  If there is a hereafter, I’ll hope to see those who may dispose of that stuff, when they are at the point of their own disposal.  I am flotsam, and this doesn’t bother me – it’s as much an irrelevancy as Things and Stuff are supposed to be, according to certain philosophies.  I contain multitudes, but nothing fools me into ascribing immortality to that – and no amount of collecting, holding on to, and curating the artifacts of my life makes me honestly believe that what I imbue with meaning contains that meaning in its own right.  I’m content with my earthbound avarice – and will be just as content, when relieved of the condition, to know it will not survive me.


Jeff said...

What a lovely, thoughtful post.

When I was teaching, students were often amused by the medieval attachment to saints' relics. It didn't take long, though, to make them realize they were likewise attached to signed baseballs, autographed pictures, and relics of family and friends. This is something history can do for us: show us that some behaviors that threaten to make the past feel distant are, in fact, universally human.

DLM said...

Why thank you, Jeff! We're an intriguing curiosity, humans - aren't we?