NOVEMBER 27, 2011
AT THE SCENE OF HIS MOTHER’S FUNERAL, Elvis Presley — invincible sex symbol, cocksure performer, the man who changed the world and music forever — was reduced to a pathetic, blubbering mama’s boy. “Mama, I’d give up every dime I own and go back to digging ditches, just to have you back,” he told her body while it lay in repose the night before the funeral. At the service, according to biographer Peter Guralnick,
Elvis himself maintained his composure a little better until, towards the end, he burst into uncontrollable tears and, with the service completed, leaned over the casket, crying out, “Good-bye darling, good-bye. I love you so much. You know how much I lived my whole life just for you.” Four friends half-dragged him into the limousine. “Oh God,” he declared, “everything I have is gone.”
Compare this to another scene, a century earlier: Ralph Waldo Emerson, also a celebrity in his own day, describing the transference of the remains of his mother and son Waldo to Concord’s Sleepy Hollow cemetery:
The sun shone brightly on the coffins, of which Waldo’s was well-preserved — now fifteen years. I ventured to look into the coffin. I gave a few white-oak leaves to each coffin, after they were put into the new vault, and the vault was then covered with two slabs of granite.
It’s hard to say how much emotion lies behind that statement, “I ventured to look into the coffin,” but it’s clear how vastly different this response to a death of a loved one is. Emerson’s mode of grief is more restrained and reflective, and yet the gesture of opening the coffins of loved ones to gaze at their remains seems macabre, a transgression of the sanctity of the dead, alien to our own time.
There are, in other words, two aspects to the phenomenon of death. On the one hand, there is death itself — immutable, the single certainty all of us face, unchanging as it has always been. On the other hand, though, is how we living face the death of others, which is constantly changing, composed of ritual, emotion, and something that each culture and each generation must define — and redefine — for itself.
Our current culture seems generally uncomfortable with facing the prospect of mourning, and even more uncomfortable with the dead body itself. Only nine days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush forcefully declared that it was time to turn grief into action, attempting to foreclose any extended period of public mourning period. And personal losses aren’t much different; half a century ago, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death laid bare the amount of chemicals, makeup, and money we waste in order to give death a pleasant, less death-like appearance. Death is a thing to be acknowledged but not dwelled on, not faced head-on.
Michael Kammen’s Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials offers a fascinating history of how we got here, and how the process of mourning has evolved in the course of one young nation’s history. Kammen, an Emeritus Professor at Cornell University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization, sets out to track how the United States has struggled to define and redefine the purpose and meaning of its illustrious dead. Chronicling famous and infamous Americans whose bodies have been dug up, transported, rededicated, and reburied, Kammen follows Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War heroes, along with political, literary, artistic, and religious icons whose final resting places have shifted — in some cases several times — over the past 200 years. These reburials are often controversial, always theatrical, and offer a singular perspective into a national consciousness — what could be more central than how we deal with our most famous dead?
“Relocation and reburial,” Kammen writes, “are invariably all about the resurgence of the reputation of and hence respect for someone whose lamp and visage had dimmed in some way.” History, Kammen’s work suggests, is a process of continual forgetting and remembering, and these stories reflect the way our cultural memory is constantly engaged in the resurrection of those figures whose cultural capital has waxed and waned. James Wilson, an associate justice on the first Supreme Court and signatory to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, had died in disgrace in 1798, bankrupt and hounded by creditors; the only thing that kept him from being impeached from the Court and thrown in jail was the malaria that killed him. It was over 100 years later that physician Silas Weir Mitchell (famous for his “rest cures” savaged by Charlotte Perkins Gilman) started a campaign for his proper burial, mobilizing Pennsylvanian pride on behalf of the state’s lost son. Ultimately he and others enlisted the help of Andrew Carnegie, the sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and President Roosevelt himself, for a plan to rebury Wilson with full honors. Though Wilson’s fellow justices had not bothered to eulogize him after his death, in 1906 Roosevelt told a crowd at the state’s capitol, “I cannot do better than to base my theory of governmental action upon the words and deeds of one of Pennsylvania’s great sons, Justice James Wilson.”
The United States’ first century was dependent in no small measure on famous corpses to substantiate a narrative of itself. When the Revolutionary War hero Richard Montgomery died trying to capture the city of Quebec in 1775, he immediately was hailed as one of the great martyrs and heroes of the early republic. He was buried with honor in Canada, but in 1812, when tensions flared once again between the United States and Britain, Montgomery’s memory was used as an effective recruiting tool, and his veneration led to a movement to have his body repatriated. In a massive ceremony that lasted five days, starting on July 4, 1818, his body was returned to Albany, New York, where it lay in state while thousands of mourners passed by, then traveled by steamship to Manhattan, where the most elaborate ceremony since George Washington’s death was held on July 8. Montgomery’s corpse embodied a foundational story for a nascent country to tell itself, and perhaps even more than the poems written about him, or the towns named in his honor, it became a locus around which a nation could rally.
Likewise, when Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, died in 1889, the South was finally emerging from Reconstruction, and its once disgraced leader now became a symbol of Southern pride and resistance to Northern interference. As such, six different cities lobbied and fought for the honor to hold his remains, including Montgomery, Alabama (named for that other hero, Richard Montgomery), where Davis had assumed the presidency, and Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy (which ultimately won out). The Jefferson Davis Memorial Association conceived of a funeral procession and monument that would equal, if not surpass, those of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, and though they quickly ran out of funds and enthusiasm, their zeal reflects the importance of Davis’s funeral and grave marker in defining a place and a people.
Grant’s tomb, dedicated in 1897, 12 years after his death, leaned both towards the past and the future. The Grant Monument Committee chose John H. Duncan’s design for his monument — a square Doric temple with a massive granite dome on top, echoing the Roman mausoleum of Hadrian. Just two years before the beginning of the notorious Spanish-American War, Grant’s tomb with its echoes of the Roman Empire seemed to announce the imperialist attitude that the nation now found itself adopting.
“Reburial was all about possession and memorialization,” Kammen notes, “matters of reputation, memory, sentiments concerning the most suitable venue, pride of ownership, plus the commercial development of privately owned ceremonies, and eventually even tourism.” The artist Mark Rothko was originally buried quietly in the cemetery of East Marion, New York, but when his children petitioned to have him exhumed and reburied in a Jewish cemetery alongside his wife, the East Marion Cemetery Association immediately complained of the loss of tourist dollars and prestige: “He’s our only notable person,” the secretary-treasurer told the press. But his children’s motives were not entirely pure, either: Rothko had died estranged from his wife, and by trying to bury the two of them alongside each other, their children may have been trying to force a reconciliation between two parties who were no longer in any position to object.
The sense one gets after reading through Kammen’s book is just how uninterested we’ve become in the actual body, and how distasteful we find the messy details of death. It may be important that Lincoln’s tomb actually contains his remains, but they are sequestered well beneath a massive, sterile monument of stone and granite. Reading the history of all these American reburials, what becomes clear is a paradox that haunts all cultures, particularly ours: the body is of utmost importance, and yet it must not only be removed from sight but symbolically scrubbed from existence. For all the efforts taken to ensure that these reburied remains were authentic — the lengthy verification process of Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones’s remains when they were exhumed in Paris in 1904, for example — the monuments built to house these remains, with their massive granite walls, columns, and bronze statues, bespeak neither the living nor the dead, but something inorganic, as though architecture alone could supplant the fact of death.
While Kammen’s narrative covers Rothko and a few other recent deaths and reburials, his focus is on the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when bodies had the most cultural resonance and their graves the most power. With its vogue for spiritualism, the 19th century had a much closer relationship with the dead then we now do, and though monuments like Grant’s tomb and Lincoln’s grave were once the focal point of civic and national remembrance, it is now in the tomb-free National Mall — where the Martin Luther King Jr. monument was most recently unveiled — that we celebrate our illustrious dead. While other nations have embalmed their leaders for perpetual display (Lenin, Mao, Eva Perón), Americans tend to find such reverence for national corpses somewhat ghoulish; we prefer our solemnity free of the messiness of the body.
If Kammen’s book suggests that this process of facing death is one of perpetual redefinition, then the operative word in the title of David Shields and Bradford Morrow’s collection of essays, The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death, is not “inevitable,” but “contemporary.” The works here are less about the immutable fact of death itself, but what this very current and very specific population has to say about death, and how they react to it.
In Shields’s and Morrow’s anthology, death is almost entirely experienced through immediate family and friends; well over half the essays center around the death of a father (David Gates’s “Deathwatch,” Christopher Sorrentino’s “Death in the Age of Digital Proliferation, and Other Considerations”), a mother (Kyoki Mori’s “Between the Forest and the Well: Notes on Death,” Melissa Pritchard’s “A Solemn Pleasure,” Kevin Baker’s “Invitation to the Dance”), a spouse (Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Siege,” Brenda Hillman’s “Cézanne’s Colors”), or a close friend (Diane Ackerman’s “Silence and Awakening,” Lance Olsen’s “Lessness,” Hillman again). The deaths these contemporaries record are primarily through old age and cancer; death is never a function of famine, genocide, poverty, gang warfare. Nearly all of the writers are white or affluent, and all are highly articulate — this is Death as a First-World problem.
Which is not to say that there aren’t moving depictions of grief here, death being one of the world’s true universals, a fact all of us face. Oates’s “The Siege” chronicles the aftermath of her husband’s death through a series of vignettes in which the immense weight of pain comes through subtle, even trivial moments:
The other, younger cat, Cherie, though the friendlier of the two, and the less anxious, has not entered the bedroom since Ray’s departure and will not enter it no matter how I cajole her. Cherie will not sleep with me, or near me, in this nocturnal nest-life, nor will she enter Ray’s study when I am in it, though she might sleep in his desk chair; she refuses to enter my study, where I sit working, or trying to work, at my desk. Only if I sit on the living room sofa — which I must now force myself to do — as I’d done when Ray and I read together in the evening, will Cherie hurry eagerly to me and leap into my lap and remain for a few minutes — until she sees that the other individual who shared this sofa with us isn’t here, isn’t coming, and so she departs also without a backward glance.
The cats blame me, I know. Animal reproach is not less palpable for being voiceless.
It’s in the wordless incomprehension of these animals, more so than the eloquent quotes from Shakespeare and John Crowe Ransom, that the fact of death comes through most viscerally. Still, the essays that I found most engaging are precisely those that move beyond the tight, expected range of a nuclear family confronting death. Sallie Tisdale’s essay, “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies,” follows the life cycles of various species of flies, reminding us in the process that after death our bodies have important roles yet to play in nurturing the lives of others:
Blowflies deposit eggs in the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, vagina, and anus. Female flies are choosy; many have taste buds on the ovipositor to help them pick the best location — each fly to its own place. Insistent and shy, the ovipositor worms its way down: into garbage and wounds, into the rotten flecks of meat on the floor of a slaughterhouse, into stagnant water, between the membranous layers of a corpse, between fibers of living muscle, on the umbilical cord of newborn fawns — into “any convenient cavity,” says the Britannica — and deposits tiny eggs shimmery and damp, masses of them. She is careful not to crowd them, filling first one newly made womb, and then another and another. A day later, she dies.
Horrible. Most horrible.
This stomach-churning meditation acts as a powerful reminder of what we deny others when we have our loved ones embalmed for a few hours’ display, when we bury them in concrete-lined plots for our own piece of mind, or when we cremate them for a last symbolic dispersal over a sea cliff.
Tisdale’s essay reminds us to remember death, not as a time-stopping interruption of the basic fabric of life but as one more constantly moving weave in that fabric. Likewise, Mark Doty’s “Bijou” moves from a 1972 avant-garde porn film to the waste and destruction of gay life by AIDS: “AIDS makes the experience of the body, a locus of pleasure and satisfaction, almost simultaneously the site of destruction and limit.” At the same time, though, as Georges Bataille long ago noted, death and eroticism are closely, even inextricably, linked. As Bataille once commented, eroticism is “the assenting of life up to the point of death,” and Doty also recognizes that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death; otherwise the endlessness of it, the lack of limit or of boundary, finally drains things of their tension, removes all edges.”
But perhaps most interesting is the question of how we may mourn in the future, which this anthology hints at but cannot hope to treat. While the editors describe these essays as an “early twenty-first-century attempt to look at death,” the experiences of death in this anthology (which primarily features middle-aged writers looking at the deaths of their parents) are more rooted in the second half of the last century. Christopher Sorrentino’s essay most clearly gestures towards the future — interspersed with a record of his father’s death and his memory of the same is a record from a website called AOL Stalker, which claims to be a collection of AOL search queries, objectively recorded and posted as anonymous ID numbers, where user #672378’s searches over the course of a few months gradually reveals the narrative of a life:
www.substanceabusepreventionservices.org 2006-05-14 13:21:50
virginia credit union 2006-05-14 23:02:46
hgtv 2006-05-16 18:43:34
test taking tips 2006-05-18 14:49:58
northern star credit union 2006-05-19 18:23:08
dead sea scrolls 2006-05-19 23:35:13
recover after miscarriage 2006-05-22 18:17:53
“[A]s one reads this plain document, a simple enumeration of the complicated things on one woman’s mind,” Sorrentino writes, “it’s difficult not to read into it — did 672378 look up misscarriage symptoms on May 14 so that she could smoothly lie about having ‘lost’ the baby after having an abortion? Did she resolve to have the child with or without ‘him’ only to suffer a miscarriage around May 21? Did she lose the baby because of some substance abuse problem she belatedly sought help with?” In an age where Facebook profiles become walls of condolences and Second Life avatars outlive our own mortal bodies, it might be tempting to imagine a world of pristine memorializations more eternal than silk flowers. But surveying the digital traces and ephemera left behind, Sorrentino cautions that “this is no second and more durable life, it is only another document positing with each affirmative the expansiveness of the unknown awaiting our interpretation, and interpretation is no more than the empty hole we fill with our own reckoning.”
A few weeks ago on Sunset Boulevard I heard, over the stereo and through closed windows, a loud, unabashed, and half-crazed wailing. Turning to look for the source, I expected a homeless person off his meds, and instead saw a middle-aged man sitting outside the emergency room, his legs crossed as he released what I suddenly understood to be that unmistakable sound of someone who had lost a loved one.
It was the crossed legs — awkward, almost dainty — that stayed with me. If this were a photograph, Roland Barthes would have called the crossed legs a punctum: the detail that undermines the meaning of the image, the interruption that “pricks” or punctures our consciousness. His legs should not have been crossed like that, casually like a dandy, given the heart-wrenching moaning that was coming from him, and the depth of emotion so clearly visible. Head in hands, elbows on knees — that is a recognizable posture of grief. Not this.
But at the same time, it gave the image a poignancy that’s stayed with me, that’s kept alive in my memory his pain and his suffering. Death, after all, is messy, and so too is the way we respond. We do not comfortably assume the posture of mourning; we lash out, laugh inappropriately, meander radically between emotions, struggle to hold it all together, sometimes hold it together all too well, creak and babble and moan and weep and everything in between.
It is this inappropriateness, this failure to conform to expected postures of mourning, that has become particularly unwelcome in our current moment. In the wake of so many serious, bloodless acts of remembrance of the events of September 11 by politicians, Sorrentino’s comment on public mourning seems particularly apt:
With public mourning, the act to which we are called is the opposite of the grotesque social inappropriateness of true grief (see: keening, rending of flesh, hurling oneself into open coffins to embrace the dead, hurling oneself into open graves, the fulfilled suicide pact, discerning of supernal visitations and signs, etc.).
While those who were directly impacted by the events of those days have each experienced (and will continue to experience) grief in a unique, individual way, it’s clear that the work of these ceremonies, each and every year, is to deny the reality of those individual expressions of suffering, to transform them instead into a granite wall of national unity. David Rieff wrote recently, “the ghost at the banquet of all public commemoration is always politics — above all the mobilization of national solidarity … It is about the reaffirming of group loyalty rather than the establishing of historical accuracy, let alone the presenting of an event in all its moral and political complexity.” This is the moment we’re moving towards, away from true grief and towards public solemnity; as Geoff Dyer notes in his essay on ghost bikes (the semipermanent memorials for cyclists killed by cars), “Solemnity, it is worth remembering, is usually a form of decorum, a way of behaving that is entirely compatible with a lack of feeling.”
Dyer’s and Sorrentino’s comments capture a contemporary moment where grief is replaced by public mourning and solemnity, but while their comments apply to the political moment at large, they could just as easily apply to this anthology as well. As I read and re-read The Inevitable, I couldn’t help but feel the absence of the kinds of expressions Sorrentino lists: There’s no wailing here, no keening, no beating of breasts — no crazed rantings or ramblings. By the time I had finished the book, it seemed remarkable to me that, in an anthology filled with first-hand accounts of the deaths of loved ones, there were no actual mentions of anyone crying. Upon reflection, that turned out not to be true; when I went looking for examples I found them, but they’re downplayed, hidden, not meant to be seen. They’re the kind of crying that David Gates describes on his father’s deathbed: “I wept, though I tried to hide it: I didn’t want him to feel wrong about going.” If these writers weep, they simultaneously struggle to hide it from us, as though it would be unseemly, and as a result The Inevitable lacks the terrible ecstasy that is the other side of loss. There’s an artfulness here that’s impressive, though it seems to work as a defense against any risk or feeling, and the polish of these pieces echoes the polish on a granite monument, as if desperate to hide the real fact of death buried somewhere far below. The essays here are eloquent reflections on grief, but they are not grief itself.
That may simply be symptomatic of a larger cultural moment: we have become people who do not want to be seen mourning. It may also reflect the current state of American writing, where any hint of the lugubrious, the overwritten, the shrill, or the baroque must be revised out of existence in favor of the artful mot juste. What’s clear, though, is that while we may honor the dead with beautiful monuments of prose and marble, it’s often in our least artful moments that they come alive through us.