I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write: From henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.

—Book of Common Prayer

souls turned to birds

Souls Transformed into Birds (15th C.). Venetian manuscript illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Biblioteca Marciana, Venice.

Can we stay awhile with death? This is November, month of the Holy Souls. Poor Souls, in the wording of my childhood. It is the season to remember that “in the midst of life, we are in death.” The Church gives us a full month to consider what the culture around us strains to obscure. Let us not rush.

Lombard School:Purgatory

Purgatory (15th C.), Lombard School. Manuscript illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Somber choruses to the Great Leveler, threnodies on the fragility of all earthly fame and favor—these are ancient themes common down ages and across cultures. In Day of the Dead , a garland of mortal reflections, Frank Gonzalez-Crussi recounts one of the less familiar aspects of Renaissance achievement: the spectacular memento mori . These were staged with all the macabre luxuriousness that mechanical ingenuity could provide:

In a carnival organized by Piero di Cosimo in 1551, a huge black cart, drawn by black bisons and crowded with human bones and white crosses, carried an enormous Death wielding a sickle and surrounded by tombs. At every station where the cart stopped, the tomb slabs parted, and the public could see frightening beings simulating decomposing cadavers emerging from the graves. There followed other terrible personages, or “death masks,” who carried torches and sang hymns to intensify the horror of the spectators.

This was a grandiose, theatrical exultation, a sophisticated mise en scène worthy of the Italian Renaissance, carefully calculated to excite collective shudders in crowds sensitized to the idea of death.

3living 3 dead

Three Living and Three Dead (15th C.), woodcut. Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Gonzalez-Crussi compares the vivid European imagery of death—sobering variations on the danse macabre —with its rambunctious, non-menacing incarnation in Mexican folklore:

The Mexican skeleton . . . is no spook. It is a policeman, a city dandy, a hired ranch hand or a bar tender . . . . A calavera , though a skeleton, poses no threats.

It may be argued that all this is affectation and pose; that Mexicans disguise the universal fear of death under the trappings of hilarity. So be it; it is still necessary to acknowledge that the disguise works wonderfully well. The skeletons that populate Mexico in early November do not address us with pathetic appeals. They never adopt dramatic poses; nor can we hear them intoning mournful dirges. We hear from them no solemn injunctions to repent, no preaching, no somber reminders of our need for moral regeneration. Caustic wit, biting irony, and sarcasm are their only weapons. They nettle us, and the rest they leave to our discretion.

That is probably just as well, if not for the reason the author, a pathologist, prefers. (“Who knows, if the blessed souls took umbrage at our occupation, how dissectors might have fared today.”) To the degree that modern Day of the Dead festivity is legatee to ancient Mayan burial practices, jolly dead are easier to live with than the ghastly kind.

ART6021

Diego Rivera. Day of the Dead/City Fiesta (1923-24), mural. Secretaria de Education Publica, Mexico City.

Unlike most substantial cultures around the world, the Mayans did not have communal cemeteries. They buried their dead under the floor in their own homes. Sub-floor burial, common to families of all classes, extended into the sixteenth century. It was an intimate arrangement that might well have continued but for the zealous intervention of Franciscan friar and Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, who witnessed it. Archeologist Edwin Barnhart states sympathetically what the bishop saw as the work of the devil: 

For the Classic Maya a residence was both home and tomb. As a result, the houses filled from two directions. While the birth rate expanded the family inside, the death rate expanded the family underneath.

A people who lodge atop their dead dare not dwell on dust and worms. They know in their own bones the urgency of making friends with the departed; they grasp the utility of relieving death of its sting. The dead underfoot have to be mollified, soothed, sweetened with gifts. Unthinkable, the calamities that might attend the sacred souls’ resentment of their hushed estate! What peril, should they harbor animosity toward the clamorous lives lived over them? Or begin to hanker after the quick? Become jealous or vindictive?

Cajoling the dead is a pragmatic measure, pre-Christian counterpoint to a religious shudder. Yet it is not without a certain tenderness. It suffers an understanding that living and dead are bound together in defiance of extermination.

Christian trust in the communion of saints is a stream fed by more than one spring.

• • • • •

This Wednesday, November 6, at the Church of St. Agnes, near Grand Central, the Catholic Artists Society is sponsoring a Solemn Requiem Mass at 6:30 PM. Details here.

At Caramoor, Lincoln Center or any other listening hall, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor is a concert. Only in the liturgical setting for which it was written is it an act of prayer. If you are in or near New York, come and pray. It is meet and just to pray for the dead. And to them as well.

Purgatory:Blake

William Blake. Dante and Virgil Approaching the Angel Who Guards the Entrance to Purgatory (1824-27). Illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Louvre, Paris

Articles by Maureen Mullarkey

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