The Dead Have Something to Tell You
By BESS LOVEJOY
Published: October 27, 2012
ONCE, we commemorated the dead, left out offerings to feed them and lamps to guide them home. These days, Halloween has drifted far from its roots in pagan and Catholic festivals, and the spirits we appease are no longer those of the dead: needy ghosts have been replaced by costumed children demanding treats.
Over the last century, as Europeans and North Americans began sequestering the dying and dead away from everyday life, our society has been pushing death to the margins. We tune in to television shows about serial killers, but real bodies are hidden from view, edited out of news coverage, secreted behind hospital curtains. The result, as Michael Lesy wrote in his 1987 book “The Forbidden Zone,” is that when death does occur, “it reverberates like a handclap in an empty auditorium.”
It wasn’t always this way. Death once occurred at home, with friends and family gathered around. Local women were responsible for washing the body and sewing the shroud. People sometimes slept in the same room as corpses, because there was nowhere else to go. In the Middle Ages, cemeteries often acted as the public square: you didn’t just walk on the graves, you ate, drank, traded and sometimes even sang and danced on top of them.
You can see this familiarity with death in the ways people have historically treated famous dead bodies. Alexander the Great’s mummy was one of the most revered objects in the ancient world, and a stop at his tomb provided a political boost to Roman emperors (Augustus supposedly went as far as kissing the corpse, though it’s said he knocked off Alexander’s nose in the process). Soon afterward, early Christians began building the first churches over the tombs of martyrs, and venerating their body parts — fingers and toes, tongues and eyeballs — as miracle-producing sacred relics. A letter from around A.D. 156 describes the bones of St. Polycarp as “more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold.”
The veneration of relics is a well-known religious practice, but the tradition also influenced the treatment of secular saints like Galileo and Descartes, whose bones were seen as symbols of their genius. When Galileo was exhumed in 1737 in Florence, Italy, for transfer to a more lavish tomb, several fingers, a tooth and a vertebra were plucked from his skeleton to be kept as relics. When Descartes was exhumed in Sweden in 1666 for reburial in France, a guard stole his skull, and the French ambassador pocketed his right index finger. During the French Revolution, a conservator reported that he’d carved some of Descartes’ bones into rings, which he distributed to “friends of the good philosophy.”
The idea of turning the dead into jewelry wouldn’t have seemed strange to the Victorians, who often wore rings, lockets and other adornments made from the hair of dead loved ones. The Romantics were particularly serious about these things, and Mary Shelley went so far as to keep Percy Shelley’s heart — plucked from his beachfront funeral pyre — in her desk drawer until she died. In her defense, keeping a heart as a relic wasn’t entirely uncommon: Voltaire’s heart is still kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, while Chopin’s is preserved in alcohol at Warsaw’s Church of the Holy Cross.
Hearts and hair weren’t the only bodily remnants once kept around the house. After the author and statesman Thomas More was beheaded in 1535, his devoted daughter Margaret rescued his boiled-and-tarred head from its pike on London Bridge, preserved it with spices, and later asked to be buried with it in her arms. And the widow of the writer and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh kept his embalmed head in a case after he was executed in 1618.
Today these stories strike us as macabre; they display an intimacy with death that seems downright unhealthy. But taken as signs of their times, it’s possible that they actually show a healthier relationship with death than the one we have now. Despite the (frequently commendable) advances that have removed death as a constant presence in our lives, it remains inevitable, and many of us are ill prepared when it comes.
The erasure of death also allows us to imagine that our mortal trivialities and anxieties are permanent, while a consistent awareness of death — for those who can stomach it — can help us live in the here and now, and teach us to treasure what we already have. In fact, a study by University of Missouri researchers released this spring found that contemplating mortality can encourage altruism and helpfulness, among other positive traits.
This idea probably would have seemed stranger half a century ago than it does now. While death is still largely absent from our lives, we’re starting to be a little more comfortable talking about it. Since the mid-1950s, a growing body of academic literature has sprung up around death, dying and grief. Cultural products that deal with corpses — everything from Mary Roach’s best-selling book “Stiff” to the Internet video series “Ask a Mortician” — are becoming more popular. “Death cafes,” in which people come together over tea and cake to discuss mortality, have begun in Britain and are spreading to the United States, alongside other death-themed conferences and festivals (yes, festivals).
Of particular note, the hospice movement has taken death back from an exclusively medical setting, and more Americans are now dying at home, frequently among their families. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 percent of Americans aged 85 and older died at home in 2007, compared to 12 percent in 1989.)
It’s never easy to confront mortality, but perhaps this year, while distributing the candy and admiring the costumes of the neighborhood kids, it’s worth returning to some of the origins of Halloween by sparing a thought for those who have gone before. As our ancestors knew, it’s possible that being reminded of their deaths will add meaning to our lives.