Tag Archives: death

Frankenfear

While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.

Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.

Popular Eternity

EntertainingJudgmentPopular culture, it seems to me, mediates reality. The media of various descriptions teach us what to think, and even if there is a religiously “orthodox” answer to questions, we will weigh it in the scales against what larger society says. This becomes clear in Greg Garrett’s Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination. Garrett, a scholar of religion and popular culture, turns his attention to death in this book. More precisely, what happens after death. The usual suspects of ghosts, vampires, and zombies are here, but also the realms of Heaven, Hell, and for the Catholics in the house, Purgatory. All of these are seen through the various lenses of movies, television, song, comic books, regular books, and games. It’s fair to say that we’re a culture obsessed with death. But then again, what culture isn’t? It may be just that it comes across more charming when there’s a buck to be made at it.

What I found interesting is that although the Bible has little to say about Heaven or Hell (and nothing at all about Purgatory), each of these realms has developed a canonical script. Hell is hot and fiery, Heaven is cool and cloudy. Purgatory is gloomy, but beyond that comes in mild, medium, and hot varieties. We know these things from various teachings of our respective religions. In popular media, however, the script has been changing. We now have mild unpleasantness passing for Hell, if it lasts forever. Nobody needs to get burned. Heaven, meanwhile, can be just okay. It’s certainly better than the other place. Or the other two. We’ve overused our superlatives and have been left feeling like we’re on antidepressants.

Polls continue to tell us that many, if not most, Americans believe in literal Heavens and Hells. A point Garrett raises, however, is they may not mean by that what their clergy assert to be the case. Since near death experiences are controversial, nobody can say that they’ve actually been to either place, or the third. The exception to this rule is those who work in fiction—in whatever form. Since we can see their visions of the afterlife so clearly they have become the arbiters of eternity, with or without any religious training. In this day of marketplace religion and nones, Heaven and Hell seem to have become secular. The church may have introduced the ideas (actually, they seem to go back to the Zoroastrians, but I’m thinking of American culture) but the media have taken them over. We may be secular, but we still die. Entertaining Judgment might give you an idea of what to expect, depending on whose vision you buy.

Story of God

Synchronicities come at kinds of synchronaddresses. After I had written a recent post on human sacrifice, I watched the first episode of Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God. My wife actually figured out how to get it without the miracle of the triple play, and we watched the initial installment on death. I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog, as I used to in my lectures, that death is a universal concern of religion. I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything new from the show, but it is a good idea to keep up with what hoi polloi are being told about the field in which I’m supposed to be a specialist. In any case, The Story of God is very much like Through the Wormhole, only from the other side. Science and religion. Religion and science. Like chocolate and peanut butter, two great tastes that taste great together. Really, I mean that.

So after telling us that the Egyptians may have invented the afterlife (although it’s clear they didn’t), the show takes us through other religious expressions: Christian, Hindu, Aztec. The Aztec segment brought up human sacrifice again, in its particularly grisly expression, as a means of thinking about what happens after death. In the light of the article I’d read (see last Sunday’s post) I couldn’t help but think how this was an ideal form of social control. There’s no doubt who’s in power when you’re looking up at your still beating heart, strangely cooled. As I’m pondering that heart, I’m thinking it wasn’t the Egyptians who first had this idea at all.

DSCN6127

Neanderthals, it appears, may have buried their dead. Even if they didn’t other ancient, pre-historic people did. And with grave-goods which, if you think about it, are rather superfluous without any afterlife in which to use them. It stands to reason, even before reason, that as soon as people began to recognize death, they had to be wondering what happened next. It is a bit simplistic to suggest that religion began because of the fear of death. It is also equally simplistic to suggest that death had nothing to do with the beginnings of what we call religion. People have died as long as there have been people. And survivors have carried on after the passing of others. Maybe we are all grown up now, but it seems that we aren’t fully human unless we give some sort of thought to what comes next. Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s some kind of religious statement, whether intentional or not.

Defying Labels

I don’t know much about the music industry, but I do know that as in publishing, labels make a difference. Who doesn’t conjure up a certain sound when they see Motown? Companies jealously sign artists to their label, with a close eye on the bottom line. Labels. Branding. Marking our territory. People like to give things labels to make them easier to understand. By now it’s no longer news that David Bowie has died. The tributes are coming thick and fast, and one recurring theme seems to be that nobody really knew how to label him. Bowie was an original, a creator. Like many truly creative people, he was seldom at the top of the charts, but his fan-base grew over decades and those who listened to him knew that he defied labels. Labels are for convenience, and life is, well, not convenient.

There’s been speculation about his final album, Blackstar, released an iconic two days before his death. The song “Lazarus” has flagged the attention of many, but here we are after the third day and he hasn’t come back. I think of my childhood and tween years in the 1970s, seeing Bowie’s album covers in my brother’s room and wondering if he was a man or woman. His transgressions frightened the young conservative that I was, accepting the label given to me by those who thought they knew me. I heard his songs coming through the open door. I couldn’t understand them, but somehow they remained with me until I was mature enough to learn to listen. Some sounds are too subtle to hear, except with experience. Here was a man telling the world “don’t label me.” And yet label we did.

“Lazarus” is a haunting song. I may be no music critic, but here is a piece by a man who knows he’s dying. The video shows him emerging from a tomb-like wardrobe (in itself significant) and simultaneously lying on his deathbed. He’s in Heaven, but in danger. Still, he knows he’s free. Like the biblical Lazarus from the Gospel of John, resurrection is only temporary. Lazarus has come back, but he must die again. As the frantic Bowie scribbles his final words on the final page, he backs up once again into the tomb from which he emerged. David Bowie may not have been a Bible scholar, but his song is prophetic. The three days have now gone past. He may not have come back, but it just may be that he never really left.

HunkyDory

Dead of Winter

WinterPeopleOne of the commonalities of all religions, I used to tell my students, is the concern with death. Not that all religions react to it in nearly the same way, but the fact is no religion ignores it. For people, obviously, our awareness of our own mortality marks us as indelibly as our birth does. Once we become aware of death, we will never be able to forget it. This inevitability fuels many horror stories, whether literary or cinematic. When I saw Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People, I knew that I would read it. Like most book consumers, I had to wait for the paperback edition, and once it was on offer I got a copy and waited for winter. Well, this year I’m still waiting for winter, but I began reading the story once the nights were long enough to qualify. It is an appropriate story for the season and it introduces what might be considered a kind of monster as well. Like most monsters, however, sleepers are not evil. The undead, however, have to find a way, ironically, to live.

The Winter People is a sad story, and tangled in the way that makes for successful novels. The main issue at play, however, is that with which all religions are concerned. Death is perhaps the most noble of literary subjects. Since we all have to face it, it is universal and yet somehow frightening. Fear of the unknown. The dead, unlike in the stories, don’t really come back to tell us what it’s like. Even those who do, in fiction, give us a distorted view. Theirs is a world inverted from our experience of it. It lacks finality. It is a place between. There is a macabre logic to it.

The living have never been comfortable with the dead. Memory reminds of who they were. McMahon is clear, in her vision, that memory is not who they are. We put them underground, but theologically we can’t let them go. Heaven, Nirvana, Purgatory, reincarnation, or even Hell—we feel that we need to give our dead a sense of place in a life after life. McMahon builds a sober mystery into her non-final afterlife. There are some, I’m sure, who will be kept up at night by her imagination. For me, I now have something to ponder. Many are the stories, like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, that warn of resurrection. We can’t keep the departed with us, and winter, when it comes, is a season of harsh reality.

Clerk and Dagger

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Recently I had the sad duty to list a contributor to a volume as deceased. The standard means of doing so in typography is with a symbol called a dagger (†). When I was young, I thought this was intended to be a cross, but it became clear, as I looked more closely, it wasn’t that at all. The origins of typographic marks go back to the classical Greeks. Used to mark dubious places in manuscripts, the asterisk was to show places where something had to be added to the text while the dagger was used to show deletion. Well, it wasn’t a dagger then. The earliest form was called an obelus and it could be a plain line, but was often shown with the symbol we now painfully associate with long division: ÷. This odd sign was said to represent a dart, a spit, or the sharp end of a javelin. Since things were to be cut out of the manuscript, a sharp instrument would be ideal. Early textual criticism, then, gave us symbols that have now been commandeered by math.

These signed evolved with time. By the Middle Ages the asterisk and the dagger could be used to indicate a pause when reciting Psalms. (Those of us at Nashotah House in the 1990s know all about pauses when reciting Psalms.) Medieval scribes marked up manuscripts religiously. Eventually the asterisk came to be associated with footnotes—a function that it still has, mostly in non-academic texts. The dagger was used for a footnote if an asterisk had already been used on that page. Beyond that, the double-dagger came into play. The function and the form of the obelus had now evolved solidly into the dagger form. The obelus continued on in math, at one time to mean subtraction, but finally settling down to represent division. Appropriate, given its graphic origins.

The dagger and asterisk were the earliest signs of textual criticism. Literalists today still don’t understand the concept, since all ancient documents of the Bible are copies of copies of copies. Nevertheless, how did a sign indicating a spit upon which an animal was roasted come to represent the dearly departed? Since asterisk and dagger often work as a pair, the most obvious way that this worked out was in representing the birth and death years of a person. An asterisk before the name meant “born in,” while a dagger in the same position meant “died in.” As a kind of typographical shorthand, then, a dagger after a name meant the person had died. Although it sounds dramatic and not a little violent, it is really only death by textual criticism. That, I suspect, is something most biblical scholars especially will be able to comprehend.

Death, Technically

Those of you who punish yourselves by reading my posts regularly may wonder at how different my last couple of posts have been. “Vacation” in and of itself is sufficient explanation for the out of the ordinary—different time zones, unreliable grammar, a certain dreaminess of topic (this is why we should all take plenty of time off work). In this case, however, there’s more to it. My wife injured herself the night before our early morning flight, and although she’s recovering well, another traveling companion is moribund. My faithful laptop that has traveled the country, indeed, crossed the ocean a hextad of times, died in its sleep on the flight over. I shut it down before climbing aboard the plane, and when I tried to boot up after that, nothing. Not friendly Apple starting tone, no wink from the camera, no sign of life from the screen.
I pulled out my phone as soon as I landed and asked Siri if there was a Genius Bar nearby. I was headed into remote parts, where shotguns are far more common than laptops. I had projects to accomplish in the rainy moments. I had a couple of readers to keep updated. Could the geniuses perform a miracle? Alas, the schedule was unforgiving. I hadn’t made an appointment and even though I’d been pouring money into Apple products while the genius before me was in still in diapers, I was up a proverbial (as well as literal) creek without an Apple. He halfheartedly gave my keyboard some kind of Vulcan finger combination pinch, but the look in his eye was definitely more Klingon.
I remember coming to this remote cabin before cell phones were invented. People were just beginning to whisper about this rumor called the Internet. People still wrote each other letters. And here I am in downtown Spokane, weeping over the dead device in my lap. It had its limits, in any case. I can’t take it into the lake with me. It needs, at its age, never to wander too far from a power outlet. And yet, it holds all my darkest secrets and most enlightened ideas. And my thumbs are too fat for typing on my phone. Looking out over the mist dancing wraith-like across the Saran-Wrap early morning surface of the lake, I see two bald eagles fly by. Surely I wouldn’t have seen them had I been behind the large screen of my departed friend. These are, after all, communications from the very edges of civilization, and technology may not, all things considered, save my soul.