The year began with a life ending. My grandmother was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and died quickly – but, thankfully, painlessly – within a few weeks. Her bodily deterioration scraped down the iron exterior of her social self. I had grown up with her presence always filling any room or event that we attended. The gaps of silence between withdrawn family members forced to interact, the awkward distances moulded by time apart between once close siblings and cousins, were filled by her incredibly sharp – usually scathing – wit, creating a bridge on which interaction could take place. She was someone who was lucky enough to have more people love her than she loved; not through malice but through being unaware that so many did.
And then she was gone. The gaps return without resistance, distances arise without being combated. Her home without her presence has become merely a house. Rooms and lives are little emptier, a little smaller, a little colder.
As part of the Muslim tradition of burial, I was part of the group that literally put her in the ground. Her corpse was covered in a simple cloth, while around us the stony walls of her sons murmured lines in Arabic, in deep tones. We took our turns being unnecessarily busy with dirt and rocks, trying to be engineers and architects in order to set a neat space for the dead. Climbing inside the hole, I grabbed her head and we struggled to insert her like a jagged puzzle piece deep into the earth. We turned her, so her back was away from the wall, so that her face would not be hit by falling rock chunks. Not because it would ‘harm’ her but because, at that moment, she was not dead to us; she was merely not conscious, not alive.
And reflecting on it now, I realise that is nonsensical, but at that moment, we all still held her as though she would feel pain. We appear to slip into this way of thinking, I realise. Indeed, throughout my time in that graveyard, I realise now that I actually stepped over graves in case I should stand atop one beneath which a stranger was buried. From a distance, the teeth of broken gravestones struggled for attention amidst weeds and decaying flowers, making walking difficult enough anyway – but still I tried to respect acquired space. Climbing out, we circled the now closed grave, as the lines being murmured from the Quran grew louder. There was no sobbing or sniffing, merely the intense focus on the occasional rolling stone that was soon kicked off, or the random weed which before was unnoticed but now occupied someone’s full attention because its shadow came too close to the gravestone.
The Purpose of Death
We fight death through ritual. In the shadow of frozen angel wings, in tombs better decorated than most people’s homes, in grounds more beautiful than many parks, we have perfected strict codes of conduct for corpse disposal. We do this not for the dead but for ourselves, since those we bury are, as Hazlitt said: “fixed as the marble over… breathless as the grave that holds.” In 409, in the Southern Italian city of Nola, the bishop Paulinus expanded the tomb of the local icon, St Felix. Though located well outside the city limits, as per ancient Roman and Christian laws, the sinews of the necropolis and the metropolis were connected in a mortician-like manoeuvre. As Colin Dickey said of this construction, “With its triple archways and wide porticoes, travellers on the way to Nola often confused Felix’s tomb with the city itself.” This extravagance was no doubt lost on the great Saint, unless he nodded from Heaven (or Hell). It is, in other words, not for the Saint that Paulinus underwent this necropolis extension, but for his own glory and the city’s.
So it is not for dead, but for the living, for our own memories, and the assertion that these memories are being cherished that we give eulogies and ritualise our goodbyes. Being an atheist, I don’t believe my grandmother has gone to Heaven, is holding Allah’s hand or is meeting her dead friends and family. I think my grandmother is gone and I will never see her again. Her body is beneath the ground, jammed like a rock at an angle away from the sky.
It fell to purveyors of nonsense to give eulogies, not those who knew her; it not we who loved her, but men whose only expertise was a particular book, supposedly recited by a possibly epileptic, Arab businessman from several centuries ago. I’m not sure what I would’ve said if I had the opportunity.
Most of us, I think, want to utter words to the deceased in a moment of weakness or realisation. The confusion and light as a result of that friction gives rise to a eulogies and obits. If I saw her, knowing I never would, if I wasn’t a coward compared to her, I think there are things I would done: I think I would’ve thanked her. I think I would have told her I loved her. I think I would’ve wanted her to see me make something of myself, to make her proud of her grandson. I think I would’ve wanted her to know that I didn’t believe in her god, in her faith, in her views, but that I did respect her. I would’ve told her that I’m scared, terrified, of losing her, of never seeing her.
Our Purposeful Confusion
Death means complicity with nature, a relationship most of us refuse to acknowledge. We want to fight nature, scratching her in the face, tearing at her sides. We are not mere playthings for the forces which shape suns and forge mountains. We are humans, dammit, we are godlike in our creativity, in our ingenuity, in our brilliance! The light of our knowledge stretches through the universe and yet, still, we are felled by a complication in our livers. We reach for the moon, we literally touch it, and yet we are be killed by stairs. Spinning and exploding around us, with a force incomprehensible, is a universe uncaring and cold, dark and endless, that contains us like a candle-flame in a breaking lantern. Whatever light we cast, it fades and flutters as the wind of reality slowly seeps in. Then, we’ll be left with mere sunspots where the light was moments before.
The problem is the assumption that complicity means apathy. Because we are part of a system which is uncaring, that we should therefore emulate this attitude. This seems to me wrong. An understanding that bad things happen, that people we love get liver cancers and die, that people we revere die, means we have a foundation firmer since it is aligned to reality. Having a foundation that is skew means all the aspects we build on top will be off. We must start with the realisation then focus from there. This seems to me mostly a losing struggle, that there seems almost no option but a kind of rational pessimism – not apathy, but pessimism. It means we ought to be prepared, not allow things “to just be”, but try constantly to change them as far as we are able – but we should always prepare for the worst, never expect things to “just work out”. They don’t.
My grandmother in her life and in her death taught me many things. Perhaps I’m wrong. However, the realisation that such things really do happen confirmed this to me. Religion, it seems to me, commits some of its worst crimes by painting not simply a false picture of reality, but one that furthers the idea of an inherently wonderful existence. The problem though is that we are stupid, fallible creatures. Attempting this consideration is difficult. Religion helps to give reality a rose tint and a soft exterior – but this is not solely a fault with religion, since these types of religious systems are merely catering to the needs of humans to rather be safe, sound, secure. Rationality must constantly be fought for unless it loses out to comfortable lies. And I am no different. I realise now how hard these ideas are, how hard they are to defend, when I cleared a grave and whispered when I was close to a grave. I consider myself a rational person, but I still stepped over the graves of strangers.