Category Archives: Grave Matters

Margaret Drabble’s New Book on Aging and Death

Margaret Drabble, in The Dark Flood Rises, turns her discerning eye to old age and death. Death is the dark flood, which must one day too soon engulf those of us, like Drabble, now in our seventies, just as it ultimately engulfs us all.

Drabble’s new novel features a large cast of English seniors coping with old age and facing, or trying to deny, death. You could call this bunch over-educated and privileged, by and large, but they make good companions for confronting fate. Fran, the principal character, is still working — driving all over England to promote safe housing for the elderly on behalf her employer, a benevolent foundation. She loves staying in Premier Inns, a mid-range motel chain, watching the local news, and sipping a stiff whiskey before bed.

Claude, Fran’s ex-husband, is confined by illness to a comfortable flat in London, where he listens to Maria Callas recordings and is visited daily by Persephone, a gorgeous caregiver from Zimbabwe. A retired physician, Claude achieves transcendence each day with a self-prescribed psychedelic drug. Fran, for reasons even she doesn’t quite understand, has taken to delivering meals she prepares each week for Claude to keep in the freezer and reheat. I’d like the recipes for some of her dishes — chicken tarragon, potato-anchovy-egg bake, and kedgeree — a curried rice and fish casserole much favored at British brunches.

Down in the Canary Islands, Bennett, a retired historian, and Ivor, his younger companion of 50 years, have been leading a busy social life but are slowing down. Bennett has decided to write a brief history of the Canaries for tourists to buy. Ivor doubts it will sell, and financially dependent on Bennett, he is worried about how he will survive when the great man dies.

These are just three of the many tales Drabble tells of the life styles and coping mechanisms seniors choose. At times I wondered whether she was mocking the things we do to keep our minds engaged, such as writing blogs, and to give our lives meaning. Fran sometimes suggests that it’s all pointless. “Women live too long, Fran says, spearing a scampi tail and dabbing it into the tartare sauce. We need a plan to get rid of us. A magic lozenge.” Or, “Longevity has fucked up our pensions, our work-life balance, our health services, our housing, our happiness. It’s fucked up old age itself.”

But I think Drabble is celebrating the many and diverse courses seniors take. Certainly she celebrates her friend Josephine, who leads a seminar for seniors on poetry that deals with aging. Josephine researches obscure literary topics largely because she likes being in libraries. She imbibes an exotic cocktail every Thursday evening with Owen England, another retired academic, who is writing a monograph on clouds.

Drabble also celebrates connectedness. Her characters are all connected in some way, and though some are certainly selfish, they worry about one another and give help and comfort where they can. None can stave off the inevitable, however, and Drabble offers insights into the many ways of dying.

You’ll want to keep your laptop or IPad handy when reading this book, both to look up unusual words (“caducity”), and to familiarize yourself with the many artists and intellectuals from the first half of the twentieth century that Drabble’s characters summon up. Unamuno, Cesar Manrique, and de Chiroco have been off my radar, but it was fun to bone up on them.

The book is replete with penetrating phrases and quotations that inspire reflection.

Drabble gives us DEP (Descanse en Paz or Rest in Peace), to think about. It’s inscribed on the anonymous grave markers of African migrants who drowned trying to reach the Canaries.

Or this, from Macbeth, whose actions deprived him of a peaceful end,

And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have …

I don’t expect a great deal of obedience as my days draw to a close, but I would surely welcome honor, love, and troops of friends.

 

 

 

Garden Cemeteries to Cremation: The Magic Is Still There

Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, NY

Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, NY. Wikimedia

Thomas Laqueur’s book, The Work of the Dead, has several chapters on the rise of the garden cemetery in the 19th century. This is the kind of cemetery most of us seniors are quite familiar with. Our parents or grandparents may well be in such a place — a beautiful place for the dead, with many of the comforts or home — privacy, peace and quiet, and a comfortable spot for resting.

At a garden cemetery, we can still purchase a private plot or a family plot, with no priest to determine whether we’re in or out. We can lie there forever, undisturbed — in theory at least. (Nothing is forever.) And we can have your own monument as a way of defeating what Samuel Beckett called the “poisonous ingenuity of time.” (We can never really succeed at this. See Thomas Hardy’s During Wind and Rain.)

Garden cemeteries have been tremendously popular in the United States, although I sense they are going out of fashion. My father’s family came here from the English Midlands as poor millworkers, but early on purchased a plot by a pond down a lane in a Massachusetts garden cemetery. We have our family name there, engraved on a granite stone bought by my grandmother. But my father’s remains, and my mother’s, lie in a columbarium in a church in Florida.

That brings us to the subject of Laqueur’s final chapters: cremation. The cremation movement arose in the 1870s. Making use of furnaces derived from the steel industry, cremation was seen by its advocates as modern, sanitary, and efficient — doing in minutes what the grave might take years to accomplish. They tried to take away the magic of the body, or disenchant it, as Laqueur would say, by treating it as a waste product.

In that, they failed. It seems like most of the folks I know are planning on cremation, but with plenty of enchantment. They may want their ashes distributed among their favorite places in the world — some in that park overlooking Florence, perhaps, some in their own flower garden, and some at their favorite lake or beach. No one I know is planning to have their ashes blasted into space, but it’s possible. In fact, portability has turned out be be one of the main attractions of cremation.

Others I know are leaning toward my parents’ choice — placement of their ashes in a columbarium, with their name inscribed on the door to their little niche. Many are thinking of a columbarium in a church, highlighting another attractive feature of cremation. It makes burial in a church, or often just outside a church, possible again. Sally, down in Florida, lies in a church garden near her husband. Both their names are inscribed on a plaque on the church wall. They found comfort in knowing their ashes would be there.

Despite Diogenes, disenchantment of the body has never caught on. Even when bodies disappear in a war, or because of a natural or man-made disaster, we remember their former owners by inscribing their names on a memorial. Visitors to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington often  leave messages, toys, or even cans of beer for the dead. The inscribed names have acquired the power of actual bodies to enchant.

I imagine that my remains will end up going with the general flow, probably cremated or placed in a green cemetery, rather than being left outside for the local crows and coyotes. Thanks to Thomas Laqueur for making me realize that on balance, it’s probably for the best.

Thoughts On An English Churchyard

John Constable, Scene in a Churchyard on a Hill (1833). British Museum

John Constable, Scene in a Churchyard on a Hill (1833). British Museum

Thomas Laqueur, in The Work of the Dead, devotes many pages to the English churchyard. For seven or eight hundred years, until well into the 19th century, the vast majority of English people expected to be buried in the yard of their local church. They regarded such a burial as a right, although local aristocrats and gentry expected something grander — to be buried inside the church itself. Still today, visitors can see the names of the privileged carved on the stones that cover their remains in church aisles, or even spots where they’e been slid into the walls.

English churches face east, toward Jerusalem, and the bodies in the churchyard are also directionally aligned — feet to the east, head to the west. This was the Christian community at rest, awaiting the resurrection, when all would rise to be judged by the savior. In the meantime, it was preferable to be buried on the warm and sunny south side of church, rather than the north. The latter part of the churchyard was reserved for suicides and other folks in ill repute for one reason or another.  A similar “necrogeography,” as Laqueur calls it, can be found in the oldest churchyards along the American east coast.

English churchyards are usually not very large, so it’s easy to wonder how, over hundreds of years, all the dead could have been fit in. The answer is, that as time went by, remains decayed and burial places were re-used. Sometimes, it was necessary to nudge someone aside to squeeze in a new body. This re-use and crowding explains why the ground in a churchyard is often elevated and kind of lumpy. Let’s face it — the churchyard bears a certain resemblance to a compost pile, and Laqueur records one parish priest who took home churchyard soil to fertilize a field.

This got me to thinking about Katrina Spade’s Urban Death Project. My English cousin, Clare Brookes, first called my attention to Katrina’s work. (Clare heads Volkswagen Funerals, an elegant and stylish way to go.)

Spade is concerned about the environmental costs of current funeral practices. Conventional burial consumes a shocking amount of tropical hardwoods, metal, and concrete, not to mention land. Embalming fluids have a number of deleterious environmental effects. A single cremation, according to Spade, adds 540 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Through the Urban Death Project, she is aiming at the construction of special facilities in which thirty or so bodies would be composted over the course of several weeks, decaying eventually into garden soil that might be given to relatives or used in parks.

When I first read about this, I was repelled — even though intellectually I accept Diogenes’ point that the body is unimportant. It can be devoured by wild beasts and its former inhabitant will know nothing of it. Anyway, Laqueur has made me realize that composting went on in English and other western churchyards for hundreds of years, even if it wasn’t called that. Why should I be repelled if it makes a comeback?

Spade doesn’t advocate casting bodies onto sawdust piles, as is done with farm animals, but rather observing respectful rites in dignified surroundings so that the living may be comforted. As Laqueur and others note, a death leaves a tear in the social fabric that must be healed.

Not so long ago, many were appalled by the emerging practice of cremation, conducted in industrial-style crematoria; but today cremation is widely accepted. Now it may be time to turn a new leaf with composting.

Limiting the Power of the Dead

Robert E. Lee Monument, Richmond, VA. Hal Jasperson.

Robert E. Lee Monument, Richmond, VA. Hal Jasperson.

A friend once told me that she could never vote for a Democrat because her mother would turn over in her grave. I thought of this friend while reading The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, by Thomas W. Laqueur.  We’ll be doing two or three posts related to this book, which is well worth reading — if you enjoy a long, scholarly work, with lots of classical and other historical references, that will call all sorts of things to mind.

Laqueur reminds us that the dead have power. He starts by discussing Diogenes (412-323 BC), who told his students that when he died, he wanted his body tossed over the city wall where it would be “devoured by beasts.” Since the body would be lifeless, Diogenes argued, it would feel nothing, so its fate did not matter. Objectively speaking, he was right, of course. Left alone, buried, or cremated, a body is soon turned into its constituent elements and disappears. It has no importance.

Yet something in human nature makes it impossible for most of us to behave as if this were true. We honor the dead, we conduct services for the dead and erect memorials to them, we remember the dead and pray for them — even though Martin Luther taught us centuries ago that this is a waste of time. We dream of the dead. Intellectually, we know they no longer exist, but we act as if they did.

This gives the dead power — that’s why my friend could could not vote for Barak Obama, even though she wanted him to be President. More broadly — much more broadly — Laqueur argues that “the dead make civilization on a grand and an intimate scale, everywhere and always: their historical, philosophical, and anthropological weight is enormous and almost without limit and compare.”

This must be true, and all well and good. I prefer living in civilization to living otherwise. But civilizations can go wrong, as happened in the American South, for example, before and long, long after the Civil War. The omnipresent Confederate monuments in that region are an oppressive force still today. That’s why it’s important to remember that the power of the dead is something in our minds, a form of enchantment, as Laqueur might say. There are times when we need to recognize that power for the cultural artifact it is, and ignore it.

Returning to the level of the individual, it may be that some of us, like my Republican friend, allow the dead too much power in our own lives. This is something common-sense seniors should avoid. Our late parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, exes, friends, and enemies truly are dead and gone. They have no objective power over us. It’s nice to remember the dead fondly if we can, but we can’t let them boss us around.

 

 

 

Dying: The Consumer Experience

Love the title of this UK publication: Dying Better: The Consumer Experience at the End of Life. It’s by Which? — the British version of Consumer Reports. Of course, dying has its transcendental aspects, but it’s important to remember that there are practical considerations as well. We should at least consider our choices about death as carefully as we consider the purchase of a new car or computer. Things can go seriously wrong from a financial perspective without careful planning in advance.

Much of the report relates to problems specific to the UK, but there are certainly some commonalities, such as the all too common failure of aging people to complete advance directives or consult an independent financial advisor.

For Americans, many of these issues are considered right here at Common Sense for Seniors and elsewhere. Our own Consumer Reports does a pretty good job online and in occasional articles.

Rejoicing on Another Shore

In churches over the holidays, we often hear this prayer:

“Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.”

It’s so beautiful. And so evocative, even of pre-Christian themes. I think of Gilgamesh, in his futile quest for eternal life, crossing the Waters of Death to speak with Utnapishtim, who had survived the Great Flood and been granted immortality. I think of Virgil’s Aeneas crossing the Acheron with the Sibyl to meet the spirit of Anchises, his father, in the Blessed Grove. There they are, I imagine as I listen to the prayer, all those loved ones who have passed away, rejoicing with Anchises and all the others in the grove on that distant shore. For a moment, I enjoy the happy thought.

But then my rational self kicks in. Wasn’t I just reading, in Thomas Laqueur’s new book, The Work of the Dead, that the idea of the dead being in a place went out with the Reformation, at least in mainstream protestant thought? Haven’t I previously expressed a weakness for Epicurus’ view, channeled by Lucretius, that in fact the dead do not exist? (See my note on The Swerve.)

Ah, well. It’s still a happy thought. Let them rejoice.