When my mother died, the doctors pumped my father so full of tranquilizers and mood elevators that he lumbered through the funeral like a representative of the living dead. He had awakened one morning to discover his wife dead beside him, and, since he was a heart patient, the doctors were afraid that he could not survive the shock. In a real sense, he did not. Neither the pills that took away his humanity nor the surgeries that turned him schizophrenic could prevent his body from complying with the decision his spirit had made on the day his wife died.
My mother’s funeral was the usual modern farce. My parents had liked to travel, and, although they still had old friends in Charleston, where she was to be buried, they were old friends, by and large, with whom she had lost touch. The priest, whom my father had known as a ballplayer, had never met my mother, but that did not keep him from descanting on what a “byudeeful, byudeeful” person she was.
It was an embarrassing moment, one I have had to relive at nearly every subsequent funeral. People no longer stay in one place, and, if they do, few of them go to church. American funerals have been liberated from the ugly fact of death, as hypocritical preachers assure the audience that the dead nonbeliever who left his wife and cheated on his business partners “is in a better place.” At one rich man’s funeral I attended, the Lutheran preacher admitted he had never met the deceased but had learned from his family members what a great guy he really was, and, instead of a eulogy or sermon, he told some of the amusing stories he had heard only that day. Mourners nowadays, especially if they are of advanced years, wear casual clothes in cheerful colors, and I have heard more than one chipper old lady complain that the sight of black can be depressing. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, they would not be bad old ladies, if they had someone to kill them every day.
Living with the reality of death is one of the most necessary moral duties, but we Americans manage to evade that responsibility up until the end. When I lived in McClellanville, where everyone knew everyone, funerals were a normal part of life, and, when we had our annual church picnic at the old Brick Church, it was comforting to see a man’s great-grandchildren picnicking on top of his tombstone and frolicking among the family graves. It was not desecration. “In the midst of life we are in death,” said that church’s old Prayer Book, but the converse should also be true: In the midst of death, we are in life.
Life in a village of 500 souls is life on the human scale. When we leave the village and move to a city numbering hundreds of thousands, we either create our own little village of friends and neighbors or learn to subsist for ourselves as one of millions of organisms competing for wealth and power. Treating our fellows as so many ants, we can witness their deaths, as unmoved as we have been untouched by their lives. When we are young and still climbing the ladder, we can persuade ourselves that only we exist, that there is no other entity entitled to speak in the first person; but, as we fail to become as rich as Gates, as powerful as Perle, our self-confidence may begin to falter, though not far enough to acknowledge other people’s existence. Other people become the reminder that we are not what we would like to be, and, if we think about death for a moment, we may be resentful that others will walk carefree over our graves. Better a brass plaque in a memorial garden. Better cremation.
Luigi Pirandello was overwhelmed by the modern conviction that the world is an illusion each one of us makes up as he goes along. In his moving story about two black horses, “L’Allegrata,” he grappled with his own death-obsession. Nero (Blackie) has recently arrived at a new stable. His previous owner, the princess, has fallen ill, and her son, a motorcar enthusiast, has persuaded her to sell the horses. Aggravating Blackie’s loneliness is the incessant vulgar chatter of his new stallmate Fofo, who wonders obsessively about what is put into the long boxes that the black horses pull in their dignified wagons. The two horses are paired for the first job, on which Nero disgraces himself by shying and rearing in front of the house where they are to pick up the cargo. It is, of course, the house of the princess, who has died, and, to reassure Nero, the mistress’s old coachman tells him how pleased she would be to be taking her last ride in a carriage drawn by her favorite horse.
Pirandello was as obsessed with death as was Fofo, and he requested the plainest funeral for himself—to be carried out naked, wrapped only in a sheet, and be cremated—but since Pirandello was the greatest writer in the Fascist Party, Mussolini insisted on a gaudy state funeral. The Fascists were right: What advantage would a plain funeral have been to the dead writer compared with the benefits the party and the nation gained from a state funeral?
Like most of us, however, Pirandello was thinking only of himself. How many of us, I think he wondered, will, by our death, make even a horse disconsolate? Hemingway observed that the men who bought photographs of a dead bullfighter looked at the picture so often that they forgot what their hero really looked like. Within days or even hours of our death, we decay into a string of anecdotes, which, as they are repolished with retelling, replace any vivid memories that our friends might retain of us. People who cannot think about their own death cannot mourn the death of another, and, if we are pagans, the only proof that we have ever lived is the sorrow displayed at our funerals. Of course, we shall not be there to witness the tears, the cheeks rent by fingernails, the ritual lamentations, but, in our dying, we can be comforted by the awareness that we are leaving a world that will miss us. That, after all, is what friends and family are for: to encourage the delusion that we have not lived in vain.
Solipsism is more than the philosophical theory that only the self can be proved to exist. This “theory” stems from the hallucination that the universe depends on me alone. When I am gone, the screen goes blank. The ultimate consolation, for the solipsist, is to be joined by his pets, his servants, and his wives in death. The prospect of suttee must have been a great comfort to a dying Indian prince. Without wishing to pass judgment on the customs of another civilization, I think the wife might be pardoned for having her own point of view. I suppose that, if a man and woman were equally solipsistic, equally alone in the world, they might make a suicide pact and simultaneously extinguish each other’s universe.
Christians used to be taught to contemplate their own mortality. In Palermo, where Pirandello attended university for a time, there is a Capuchin cemetery where the dead, dressed and posed as they were in life, were put on display. When my good Catholic friends went off to see the grotesque spectacle, I preferred to go off to lunch. I do not need skeletons to remind me of my mortality. Another fictional Sicilian, the hero of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, imagined what an impressive figure he would make, when he joined the other stiffs on display, but the prince was, after all, a pagan, who hoped to be greeted by the goddess of the evening star.
Like Huck Finn, I take no stock in dead people. The corpse of a friend or relative is to me worse than inert, especially if it has been improved by the undertaker’s art. I know I am wrong in this. It must be a good thing for the bereaved to take one last look, to acknowledge that a mother or wife was not mere spirit but also flesh and blood. The Church has always opposed cremation, not out of a superstitious concern about the resurrection of the body, but because disrespect to the body of the dead might impair our respect for human dignity. A man who spends his days dissecting corpses for science might understandably view the living body with something less than reverence.
Nonetheless, I have difficulty in connecting the prettified corpse with the person I once knew. In his journal, Walter Scott records his reaction to the sight of his wife’s corpse:
I have seen her. The figure I beheld is, and is not, my Charlotte—my thirty years’ companion. There is the same symmetry of form, though those limbs are rigid, which were once so gracefully elastic—but that yellow masque, with pinched features, which seems to mock life rather than emulate it, can it be the face that was once so full of lively expression?
I find Scott’s controlled mourning more terrifying than any catacombs. I am tempted to say that it is the difference between northern reserve and Latin exuberance, but, although Latin countries today are franker about death, it was Northern European artists (such as Mathias Grünewald) who carried the obsession with death to the extreme: deathbed scenes filled with devils; Last Judgments portraying the most imaginative tortures; sculpted effigies whose noble images of beautiful ladies and heroic knights do not quite conceal the rotting flesh underneath the surface.
Italian art (including Signorelli’s great Last Judgment in the Orvieto cathedral) is typically more austere. I used to go to Pisa almost every year and would stare, uncomprehending, at the Last Judgment depicted in the Campo Santo—or rather, in the parts of the Campo Santo that Allied bombers chose to spare. (I do not know why they did not shoot up the Cathedral, Baptistery, and Leaning Tower while they were at it.) One particularly brilliant detail, which I never understood, shows three young men in hunting costumes, staring at three coffins with corpses. This is, apparently, a portrayal of a “Dance of Death” theme: The young men are staring at their own corpses. It is something to think about.
Christians are not the only people who have sought the meaning of life in the fact of death. In Latin love elegy—the poems of Propertius and Tibullus—the persistent awareness of death adds spice to the pursuit of love. There is, we are reminded, “una nox dormienda”—one night that must be slept for good. For Greek and Roman pagans, death gave to life a sense of urgency and seriousness. Who would squander today on television programs and football games if he knew he was to die tomorrow? To this pagan sensibility, Christianity adds a spiritual and moral dimension. Go ahead, cheat your partner and seduce his wife, but you are wasting your life on vice and will pay a terrible penalty. If you will not contemplate your own mortality, then read Dante’s Commedia, and not just for the beauty of the poetry or the philosophical insights.
Post-Christians do not want to hear about this—least of all from Dante. They embalm their corpses and paint them up, as if for a stage performance. Tonight only. Their interments are like reality TV: Everything is made to look “so lifelike,” but nothing could be less real. They wear cheerful spring colors to funerals, and, at the viewing, they chatter merrily about sports and shopping. If, in the dead of night, the ancient fear of death sneaks into a conscience numbed by Friends, there is a medicine cabinet filled with prescriptions to take away the sting of death and the fear of the Devil. If old Dunbar had been given mood elevators, he might have died happy unshriven, and we should not have heard his “Timor mortis conturbat me.”
We embalm our corpses in order to embalm our minds. Propertius and Horace knew that we can only be fully alive if we are conscious of our mortality and of the brevity of life. That is the point. Post-Christians do not want life, either in the pagan sense of living and fighting and rearing children or in the deeper Christian sense that culminates in the love of God that is immortality. They want only the appearance of life, as Colonel Sellers might say (that archetypal American projector in Twain and Warner’s The Gilded Age), not life itself. On drugs—whether heroin or Prozac—life and death are replaced by the appearance of life and the disappearance of death. They flush their babies down the drain and tell themselves they have a sacred right to “fulfill themselves,” and, when they discover that, no matter how much stuff they cram into the vacuum, those selves are emptier and emptier, they have to fill the spreading void with smoke and fantasy. In a real sense, they cannot die, because to die, really and truly, they would first have to live.
There is no drug problem in America; there is only a soul problem. So long as we are willing to give our souls away to the lowest bidder, so long as we continue to cheat life with TV games, video poker, and “safe” sex (what a quaint expression for an act that denies life), we shall have to drug our minds, shutting and locking all the doors and stopping up the cracks, lest, through some mouse hole or broken window, some glimmer of reality might break in upon the stone-dead fortresses we have built around our souls.