I'd first written this essay back in May of 2014. I was always quite proud of it, and due to recent events (as I discuss on my MENU Page) I thought it might be appropriate to repeat it again this month. I hope those that enjoyed it the first time won't feel terribly short-changed at this bit of recycling.
This time we're going to be quite serious, and rather heavy emotionally; you may want to read in bits and pieces to offset being overwhelmed. I say this not to entice or intrigue, but quite sincerely, as Harlan Ellison did with his introductory remarks regarding his collection of tales “Deathbird Stories”:
It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole. H. E.”
For as with the title of Mr. Ellison's work, we are concerned this time with Death; death as an end of existence, death as a personification of the unknown, death as a doorway into other realities, and death as a reality in and of itself.
For more than some time now, I've noticed a recurring motif on the Internet; an almost hesitant yet definite broaching of the subject in popular art and polite conversation. It's become very rare for a week to go by on Facebook without someone asking for kind thoughts or prayers for a family member or friend who is wrestling with a health issue, or actually on the decline and facing their death. There are also notices of the passing of one beloved individual or another, either someone famous known by all, or a person who means a great deal to a small circle of individuals.
This is certainly to be expected; the term is ‘social media' or ‘community', and as with other communities in the past, news of a passing is an opportunity to share in communal grief, to offer comfort to those in need, and to ruminate and examine one's own existence.
There's also been, through popular media, an acknowledgment of death and grieving to a degree that I'd not previously noticed. For example, here is a heartbreaking piece of art inspired by the Disney film LILO & STITCH. For those who've not seen the movie (and I recommend it highly), it concerns a young girl in Hawaii who befriends an alien fugitive and teaches him about humanity.
This artwork was in turn inspired by a work of fan fiction, a short tale titled “The Only Thing Worse Than Dying” by WatsonSword. (You can read that story HERE.) Within the story is an enlightening discussion of the nature of mortality, and its consequences:
"Hey! Wouldn't it be cool to live forever?"
"I mean, you never grow old, you never die, at least not of old age."
Stitch frowned, “ growing old, naga botifa!”
"But then again ," Lilo suddenly got a somber look on her face, ‘ I remember once, I told dad that I wanted to live forever, and he said I shouldn't. I asked him why, and he said the only thing worse than dying is living forever, because you'll outlive everyone you know, and then you'll miss them for all eternity.”
Here is another work, this time inspired by the Pokemon phenomenon, depicting again the emotionally devastating consequences of friendship between a human being and a supernatural creature possibly immortal:
In truth, it isn't terribly surprising to me that there has been a tentative focus on loss and passing; the Baby Boom generation is steadily growing older en mass, and is now considering their places in the vastness of time and the cosmos. It shouldn't be surprising they are looking hard and somewhat fearfully or ruefully at their eventually collective demise. Many, particularly those without any particular belief system or faith are no doubt wrestling with the questions and concerns of what may or may not come after this veil of tears. (And please believe that there is no judgment at all in that statement; I simply feel that those with a system of faith have probably wrestled with these issues throughout their lives, not merely as the light begins to grow dim.)
These concerns seep down to the next generation as well, as thoughts of the passings of loved ones of the previous generation hit home. One of my human companions in Pennsylvania posted these musings online not long ago:
“Tonight my eldest had a moment where he realized that in 50 years I will likely be dead. He burst into tears. It was the most sobering, sweet moment. He said that the loss of his grandfather and the illness of his grandmother these past few months has really been wearing on him. How do you try to explain to your child that as bad as it gets, and even when you wish it wouldn't....when we lose people we love, life simply goes on - without making him even more depressed. Life is so freaking grueling sometimes.”
All this can be very unsettling and melancholy; I'm certain more than a few hearts were tightened and tears stung by the images above. Yet death is genuine; it is the one experience that all of humanity shares along with fear. People may not ever have known love (which is tragedy in itself), but all have been afraid and all will die. As far as it's known, humans are the only species that have a deep understanding of their own approaching mortalities, making them unique from dolphins, apes or other similarly social creatures.
With this in mind, let's talk for a moment or two about death, or more precisely, Death, as it's been presented in popular culture, in mythology, and in everyday practice. And hopefully by the time we're finished, the heartache may lesson, and an understanding and truce will be achieved.
The image of Death personified by my Cousin as the Grim Reaper can be traced to the 15 th century. No one can say precisely who first conceived this, but in my mind it's tied deeply into the agrarian communities and early pagan practices; the seasons change, and the earth goes through its natural cycle of birth and rebirth from spring through winter and back again. The planting and the harvesting become entwined deeply with society's dependence on food for its growth and survival, and it's not a far leap from harvesting the grain at the end of autumn to harvesting souls at the end of existence.
Thus the Grim Reaper carries the same scythe that those tilling the fields carry, and he sweeps the landscape clean with a single stroke. (And there may be some connection with Atropos, one of the Three Fates, the woman with her scissors who snips the thread at the end of life.) He is often seen in a long black robe, which may symbolize the end of life (black being a stark color that absorbs all the other ones in the spectrum) or may have nuanced connections to the Black Plague of Europe where Death was always present. In many instances Death is seen as simply a man, but more and more he's portrayed as having skeletal features, for reasons I'll speculate on later.
Of course, the Grim Reaper is popular from Western mythology; there have been and are many Angels of Death, and he represents only one. Every culture has their own representations, each with their own methods of collection.
There is Azrael, the name of my Cousin's wife and an Eternal herself, whose name comes from Islamic culture. The Greeks referred to Death as Thanatos; the Irish regarded Death as a race of beings known collectively as the Dullahan. Lithuania named Death Giltine and saw her as a woman. Indeed, in many traditions Death was not male but female, most notably the sacred figure of La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, in Mexican culture. She is also know as La Catrina or Lady Catrina, and is a skeletal figure dressed in regal, exquisite finery. The Chinese refer to Death as Yanluo, the ruler of Di Ya, the Underworld.
In the Hebrew faith there was not a Reaper, but the Angel of Death was commonly called “The Destroyer”, striking down with a drawn sword. They (for there were many) were also known as the Memitim. Some have named the angel Samael as the Angel of Death, while others consider Michael to be the one who carries the souls to Heaven; this has transposed over into Christian beliefs.
Depending on his culture, the Grim Reaper was either seen as benevolent, fulfilling the final task of existence and guiding the passed souls into their next life, as malevolent, tearing the living from this world and snatching them off beyond the curtain between the worlds (and many of these sort are considered very unsociable, tormenting the living that become aware of them and leaving portents on who was the next to die) or neutral, simply doing his job.
If I speak of the Reaper as ‘he', be aware that, as stated before, Death is often considered as female and has a similar range of viewpoints; sometimes seductive and beautiful, calming those recently passed and nurturing them, or ugly and spiteful, cursing those who were to die. In many beliefs the Reaper can appear as either male or female, depending on how the departing soul feels most comfortable with communing.
(For those who want to learn more about the variations and guises of Death, I highly recommend THIS Wikipedia article, well researched and documented, and a fine starting point.)
In folklore, Death can be bargained with, and he can be tricked.
Perhaps the most famous example is from the Ingmar Bergman film THE SEVENTH SEAL (a marvelous work that I hope you've all seen or will see). Max Von Sydow is a knight, Antonius Block, returned weary from the bloody Crusades, who discovers that Death has been walking with him for a long time. When Death comes for his soul, Block challenges him to a game of chess; the rules being that while they are playing, however long it may take, Death will not take him. (This is actually based on old woodcuts and tapestries showing Death playing chess with mortal men; where this first became an iconic trope is a mystery.)
Initially the confrontation seems to be between Death and Block, but it's revealed that Block has other reasons and plans for his gamble. The famous conclusion sees Block and other members of Deaths party walking in silhouette over a twilight hill, engaged in the ‘danse macabre', arms linked together in a long line. This image and theme has been used and parodied many times, probably most sharply in BILL & TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY, where Death (with a thick Swedish accent) loses challenge after challenge of Twister, Clue, and Electric Football. (“Best three out of five! ”)
In the Russian folktale “The Soldier & Death”, Death is tricked by a soldier slated for dying into a magic sack whose material can hold the spirit prisoner, and hung from a high tree, leaving the soldier to become immortal. But when he grows tied of this life and releases Death so that he will take the soldier's soul, Death flees from him, leaving the soldier to wander the world undying and alone. (A variation of this is heard in my own tale “The Story Of Jack O' Lantern”, with the Devil replacing Death as being tricked up into a tree that he can't depart from, keeping him from taking Jack's soul to Hell.)
In a similar vein, the film ON BORROWED TIME depicts an old man who tricks death into climbing a magic tree from which he can' escape unless freed by his captor. Initially proud of his cleverness in outwitting the Reaper, the old man sees a world where no one dies, and suffering and starvation become rampant. Realizing that, for some, death is merciful, the old man releases death and is carried away to an afterlife that is welcoming and not fearful.
Why does humanity fear Death? After all, humans have been passing from this world for literally millions of years, and billions have gone on to their Great Reward. Why should it be so troubling? Why isn't it regarded as a natural process, like breathing, eating or sleeping?
Most probably because it is a great mystery; a terrible ‘what if?' that cannot be answered in a logical, satisfactory manner. Nobody truly knows what lies beyond, despite many who have claimed to have died and experienced a portion of the afterlife. (The current film HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, supposedly based on a true account, is an example.) By the time the mystery is solved, it's too late for anything to be done; there is no turning back, no change of mind or do-over. And it's safe to say that a lot of anxiety is produced simply because of the usual refrain; “This is different! This isn't happening to anyone else, this is happening to me! ”
During Hamlet's famous “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy contemplating ending his own life, Shakespeare makes the strongest case for humanity's fear. Comparing death to sleep and respite from the weariness of the world's troubles, Hamlet suddenly realizes:
“To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;”
Later in the soliloquy:
“But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”
As long as there is life, as terrible and tragic as it may be, there is a sure knowledge of the parameters of existence; what is to come can be more or less deduced, and remains comforting. But Death…that undiscovered country…there's nothing known, and nothing assured. What if it's far worse than anything life can offer? What if it's agony unending? There's no turning back!
But why should it be terrible? Why should it be agony? There's no logical reason; it's the very fact of its unknowing that makes humanity hesitate in its face.
Art by William Basso
One of the most famous personifications of the Reaper is from the classic film DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. (It was remade both as a made-for-television film, which wasn't bad, and a feature film titled MEET JOE BLACK, which was dreadful.) Death, portrayed by Fredrick March (who would win an Oscar as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) grows weary of his task of collecting souls, and wishes for relief. Cold and aloof, he becomes human and assumes the persona of Prince Sirki. While in disguise he meets and falls in love with a woman and begins to understand and appreciate humanity. As in ON BORROWED TIME, while human nobody on earth dies, and there is much sorrow and suffering. Realizing he must return to his vocation, he confides his true identity to the woman, who has grown to love him, and accompanies him to the next world. Death has become more human, and promises to be more compassionate in his work.
Rod Serling's THE TWILIGHT ZONE offered several versions of Death personified, all of them representing the varying aspects of the mythic archetype. These range from his delightful and sentimental “One For The Angels” (where Death is fussy bureaucrat, more concerned with his schedules being kept than with the individuals he is responsible for; he learns a great deal about his own failings when he encounters a street conman) to the adaptation of Lucille Fletcher's “The Hitchhiker” (where Death is a menacing figure stalking a woman traveler on a cross-country trip) to George Clayton Johnson's wonderful “Nothing In The Dark” ( with its most sympathetic portrayal meeting a woman shut away and terrified of dying).
Interestingly enough, all of the personifications of Death on THE TWILIGHT ZONE were male; a truly outstanding representation of Death as female occurred in Neil Gaiman's superb “Sandman” comics. Death is a young Goth woman, simultaneously flirtatious, giddy, and wise beyond her years. She is always kind to those in need, respectful of her charges, and they to a man (or woman) found her a comforting companion. So popular did she become that she was spun off into her own series.
Prior to Mr. Gaiman's creation, one of the most vivid representations came from the movie ALL THAT JAZZ, directed by Bob Fosse and written by Mr. Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthur. Jessica Lange was the mysterious woman clad in white, intent on an otherworldly flirtation with song-and-dance man Roy Scheider, a self-destructive individual obsessed with Death from a young age. (In a telling moment, the protagonist's mother's ghost speaks cheerfully to the woman, “My boy has always been fascinated by you!”) Alternately alluring and disquieting, her presence becomes increasingly ominous as the film moves towards its grim denouement.
Why is there a need to personify the Reaper? What is it that has drawn artists, authors, filmmakers, playwrights and storytellers as far back as the ancients to put a human face on Death? It is precisely for that, I believe; to put a recognizable face on what is essentially one of the greatest unknowns conceivable, and thereby arrive at a greater perception and report. When presented in human terms, even if those terms are far from benevolent, Death becomes more understandable, more identifiable, and less frightful.
Of the many reasons given for the popularity of Horror and Dark Fantasy, one of the most persuasive arguments is that it's a rehearsal for death, and a way, through allegory and literary elusion, to touch upon the metaphysical. Steven King, among many, has argued this, and indeed believes that many of the more exuberant thrill rides at most amusement parks hold the same fascination; it's a way to test the limits of one's mortality in a safe environment. Mr. King notes, “…Horror movies, like roller coasters, have always been the special province of the young; by the time one turns forty or fifty, one's appetite for double-twists of 360 degree loops may be considerably depleted.”
So the Horror story explores the ‘bad death'; ageing and decrepitude via “The Picture of Dorian Grey”, being buried alive per “A Cask of Amontillado”, being devoured by rats as in “Willard” (also known as “Ratman's Notebooks”), and so on. It even explores the concept of being cursed and troubled beyond death; of the spirit being held and possessed, doomed to haunt this life for past transgressions (“The Haunting of Hill House” and “Hell House”), having your soulless corpse return to walk the night to corrupt others (as in “Dracula” and the other vampire myths) or stumble as a mindless reanimation filled with an insatiable reflex of hunger (as in any of Mr. Romero's DEAD films and their countless imitators).
What is death? I quote Mr. King again, from his novel “‘ Salem 's Lot ”: in the words of young protagonist Mark Petrie, “Death is when the monsters get you.” That may be the essence of death reduced to its simplest terms.
And yet…is the alternative any better?
One of the finest modern tales of Dark Fantasy is Anne Rice's “Interview With A Vampire”. Her books have a loyalty worthy of Mr. Lucas and his STAR WARS endeavors or the most ferverent STAR TREK devotees. All well and good, but it was her original tome that has remained with me all these years since I've first devoured it. I also think the film version is magnificent, not only for its artistry (which is impressive) but because it captures faithfully the foremost theme of the novel.
And that theme is this: no matter what your belief system or lack of one, the simple truth is that through the eons of time that history has carved, man was not meant to live forever.
The years, the decades, march along, and it wears down mountains and civilizations with the same inexorable footfalls; anything that doesn't change stagnates. The family and companions you've known age and turn to dust; even social mores fade and evolve. If a time traveler from the 1900s were to walk the streets of a modern city, what madness could he comprehend? How could equal rights be explained, or immigration, let alone something as relatively simple as cell phones or jet airliners? The technological advances in medicine alone would be astonishing, with transplanted organs and reattached limbs.
Living through those changes would be extraordinary, but that would be a mere century. Now imagine living through age after age, and constantly having to readjust your frame of references. You remain young, unchanging, a curse in itself while the world goes on around you, either rushing past or sweeping you along like driftwood caught in a riptide.
After millennium, wouldn't one grow much more than weary? How much longer would one be expected to take up their arms against a sea of troubles, as the Danish Prince might put it? When would one long for that sleep, no matter what dreams may await?
Art by Paul Delvaux
This has been pretty sobering so far, I'll grant you. But consider this:
One of the things that Horror and Dark Fantasy state implicitly in their very nature is this: there is something beyond this realm. This is something more than just this plane of existence. This is something more than this simple veil of tears. Even at its most nihilistic and pessimistic, by its very nature it states that death is not the end of everything.
This is a famous story, which doesn't make it any less amusing or pertinent, but you may have heard it before; if so forgive me.
When he was preparing to make THE SHINING, the late Stanley Kubrick called up Stephen King to discuss the movie, and he postulated that the tale of the haunted house, no matter how terrifying or horrific, was essentially an optimistic one, because it stated firmly that death was not the final curtain; that there were other worlds that souls would inhabit, even if that meant staying in one location and becoming malevolent. Therefore, no matter how downbeat the ending of the movie might be, it would be optimistic, because of these themes of life after death.
Mr. King was, shall we say, less than persuaded by this contention, and argued for a legitimately happy ending, or at least one where not everyone was dead by the conclusion. He had his way, but I find it fascinating that Mr. Kubrick, an agnostic through his adult life, should consider these themes.
Years before THE SHINING, Mr. Kubrick directed 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY, which contained its own vision of transcendence and deliverance. It should be noted that while Mr. Kubrick was agnostic in nature, the principal author of 2001, Arthur C. Clarke, was decidedly atheistic; yet the two of them wrote and filmed one of the most persuasive finales celebrating life beyond the mortal realm. (And I'm going to discuss this in detail, so if you haven't yet seen the film – and why haven't you?!? – consider yourself warned through the next three paragraphs.)
After journeying to Jupiter and discovering a gateway from our universe to another, where host aliens are waiting to see if their cosmic invitation has been accepted by another species, astronaut David Bowman pilots a small spacecraft through the interspatial tunnel to the aliens' homeworld. After a psychedelic and sensory-expanding trip, he finds himself and his craft inside what appears to be a vintage hotel room, decorated entirely in white. The room literally glows with a strange luminescence, and we can hear the quiet chattering of otherworldly voices watching.
Astronaut Bowman begins to experience his life in acceleration, viewing it in a series of stages. He sees himself growing older, then older still, enjoying a fine meal at a small dining table. He drops his wine glass and sees himself at another stage, incredibly old, lying in bed. As he lays there the alien presence, a huge black monolith, stands in the room and communicates with him. He stretches out his hand to the form, and he is transformed again into a glowing shape: a small, infantile being, his huge eyes filled with patience and wisdom. The monolith becomes a doorway, and the child, Bowman reborn into another existence, finds himself returned to Earth. He orbits the planet, the backdrop of stars his cradle, and he looks down upon the new dawn.
Is it any wonder that many saw this as religious allegory? (It certainly caught Mr. Clarke by surprise, although I can't imagine why.) Yes, there is a scientific explanation for all these events, but couldn't there be a scientific explanation for any afterlife experience? I think as a filmed realization of the transient, 2001 remains a high water mark. The monolith, evocative of the Pagan stones of Stonehenge (always denied as an influence by Mr. Kubrick) adds an ancient layer of relevance to the final imagery. And what is the beautiful White Room, filled with white light so familiar to life after death experiences, but Heaven?
One of my favorite, and one of the most powerful films of Dark Fantasy in the past decade or two is JACOB'S LADDER, superbly directed and visualized by Adrian Lyne and written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who also wrote the lighter (but no less thought-provoking) treatment of the afterlife GHOST. In JACOB'S LADDER, Jacob Singer (wonderfully portrayed by Tim Robbins, who shoulders the movie in a very difficult role and carries it effortlessly) has flashbacks to his service in Vietnam , particularly to a battle where he was severely wounded. At this time in his life he's also having visions of demons invading New York City , first in the landscape around him, and finally threatening him directly.
He learns that members of his former unit are also being plagued with demons, and there is a government cover-up regarding an experimental drug that was used during his training. As he digs deeper into the twin mysteries, Jacob discovers that his past, present and possible future have worked themselves loose from linear structure, and he may be caught in a cataclysmic, apocalyptic struggle between the forces of light and dark.
I won't spoil the film, for much of its impact is derived from unraveling the puzzles surrounding Jacob Singer. (And what a wonderful name for a character, Biblical and evocative of the voice crying out in the wilderness or raised in praise; the film is filled with metaphor such as this, which gives it much of its potency.) But I am going to reveal some of the secrets of the finale, so you may want to skip the next nine paragraphs if you haven't seen the movie as of yet.
The demons are marvelously realized; when Mr. Rubin first wrote the script he relied on traditional religious imagery in their depiction. Mr. Lyne wanted something more visceral and less clichéd, and came up with a contemporary portrayal that seems to me terribly authentic. Using the idea of deformity and thalidomide crippling to portray the physical corruption of the soul, the demons (and its depiction of Hell, where Mr. Singer briefly finds himself) are harsh, garish and clinically plausible to a modern society, as well as utterly terrifying.
But as there are forces of darkness in the film, they are counterbalanced by forces of light, most ably realized by Danny Aiello as Louis, obstensively Jacob's chiropractor. He is a smiling gentle figure with an air of mystery and not some menace. (After all, angels are powerful forces of supernatural wonder, and even with their inerrant goodness, can be extremely frightening. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his essay on angels and devils, the first words spoken in the Bible when an angel appears are usually, “Fear not.”)
At one point while looking up from the chiropractic table, Jacob sees Louis smiling down at him, haloed by a soft light from across the room. “You know, you look like an angel, Louis, an overgrown cherub,” says Jacob; Louis just smiles down at him.
But when Jacob is at his lowest, imprisoned in Hell (in his visions a hospital where he is in traction after being injured) it is Louis that comes charging in, shouting at the top of his not inconsiderable lungs and brandishing a crutch to swing at anyone who gets in his way. He releases Jacob from the traction harnesses and pushes him out of the facility in a wheelchair. As an avenging, righteous force of good, Louis is exactly the kind of angel most people would want watching over them.
Then, in his office, correcting Jacob's injuries, they talk about what Jacob's experienced.
“I was in Hell. I've been there,” says Jacob. “It's horrible. I don't want to die, Louis…I've seen it. It's all pain.”
And Louis speaks kindly. “You ever read Meister Eckart? How did you ever get your Doctorate without reading Eckart?...Eckart saw Hell too. You know what he said? The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of your life; your memories, your attachments. They're burning them all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul…So the way he sees it, if you're frightened of dying and holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. It's just a matter of how you look at it.” (And I will interrupt briefly to point out, as C. S. Lewis did, that angels and devils are not species, but political terms for the same supernatural entities.)
Then Louis sets the table upright and tells Jacob to walk forward. Jacob protests; he's still injured, but Louis holds out his hands and beckons almost as a faith healer. After a tentative moment, Jacob steps forward without pain, and Louis smiles and whispers quietly, “Halleluiah.” I still shiver thinking about this breathtaking scene.
Later, after further investigation, satisfying Jacob regarding the mysteries he's been pursuing, he takes a taxi to his old apartment, and is greeted by the doorman. “Hello, Dr. Singer. Welcome home.” (And isn't that the most common euphemism for dying? Being called home, or going home?) He enters the dark apartment, lies down on the couch and naps a bit. When he awakens he hears a sound by the stairs, and finds his dead son playing there. They are reunited, hug tenderly, and then the two climb the stairs into a bright light.
Initially JACOBS LADDER was to end cataclysmically with a huge battle between good and evil, but the special effects didn't look proper and it would have cost a great amount of money to redo them. Director Lyne decided to completely eliminate the battle, and went with this quiet conclusion. Perhaps it was a case of divine intervention, because I find this ending perfect for this adult exploration of the Dark Fantastic. (I understand the final battle has been restored to the movie by the studio for syndication; I urge you to avoid it at all costs and rent the original.)
Quite a lot to take in, I know. Still, I hope we're moving away from what is fearful about Death and touching on the mysterious without the malevolence; I hope that wonder can be a comfort in the face of the unknown.
One of the TWILIGHT ZONE episodes mentioned above, “Nothing In The Dark”, tells of an old woman shut away from the world because she's afraid of dying. She actually witnessed the Grim Reaper going about his business early in her life, and has become terrified of him. She knows he can take any form at all to trick her and move close to her, so she's locked herself away in a crumbling basement apartment to outwait him…forever? She can't say; all she knows is her fear.
One night a young policeman (well played by Robert Redford in one of his earliest film roles) is shot by a criminal he's been pursuing, and although she's terrified of exposing herself to a stranger, she carries him inside and tends to his wounds. As they talk, she explains her dilemma, and he listens with sympathy. He tells her he can't shut herself away; they're planning to tear down this building very soon, and she'll have to leave.
At that moment there's a knock on the door, and a burly stranger in overalls forces himself into the room. In terror the woman faints; when she comes to the stranger is standing over her. He speaks brusquely but with some kindness:
“You've got to understand, ma'am. I don't get no pleasure out of busting down doors, but you don't seem to savvy how important this is. I got a crew and equipment coming in an hour to pull this tenement down…” And the woman realizes that this isn't Death; it's a construction foreman.
Still, as he continues speaking, the man unwittingly makes the case for Death. “The building is old – run down. I can see how you could get attached to it and not want to see it destroyed, but when a building is old and unsafe it's got to come down to make room for new buildings. That's life, lady. The old has to make room for the new. People ask me why I do what I do – destroy things, but in a way I'm not a destroyer at all. I just clear the ground so other people can create. In a way I help them do it. Look around. It's the way things are. Trees fall and new ones grow out of the same ground. Animals give way to new animals and even people step aside when it's time.”
He tells her if she isn't ready to leave when he returns, he'll have to call the police – and the old woman realizes the foreman can't see the policeman sitting on her sofa. The policeman himself is Death; she's been talking to him all this time. “But why?” she asks. “Once I let you inside you could have taken me anytime and yet you didn't. You acted – nice. You made me trust you.”
“I had to make you understand,” says Death. “Am I really so frightening? Am I really so bad? You talked with me, confided in me. Have I taken advantage of you? Have I tried to hurt you? It's not me you're frightened of – you understand me. What frightens you is the unknown. What frightens you is the land from which no traveler returns. You needn't be afraid.”
The woman protests she doesn't want to die, and Death responds, “And you didn't want to live. You struggled against it till you were blue and the doctor had to slap you firmly to make you breathe. And you did. You grew accustomed to it and found it good. It was natural and right and now it is done. Trust me.”
He holds out his hand, and tentatively the old woman takes it. And there's nothing. Death smiles. “You see? No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end – is the beginning.” And the old woman sees herself lying dead, peacefully on her bed. Taking Death's arm in hers, she smiles, and the two walk out her broken door into the sunlight.
Like a starchild returning, born anew from a million light years to begin a new life…
Art by Michael Whelan
Of course, what's really mourned in death is the loss of those still loved by the living; those left behind to mourn and grieve and sorrow. Look again at the artwork at the top; it isn't Lilo or Ash that are sad, it's those who loved them and will miss them and be without them, at least until they're reunited in another place.
And that's fine. It's good to mourn, and be sad, and be angry. Angry is perfectly fine; if you have faith in God he can certainly handle any of your understandable anger, and if you have no faith anger is cathartic and releasing in and of itself. Life certainly isn't fair; neither is death, and being livid at the unfairness is natural. Remember: Do not go gently into that good night; Rage! Rage against the dying of the light...!
But remember also that the grief and sorrow and anger is in itself selfish and self-centered; it's for yourself and those left behind, not for those who've departed and begun their incredible journey. The grief is for your loss, and in time it will abate. But that doesn't make the life mourned worth any less simply because time and the world go on without them.
In the Hispanic culture, the holiday Dia De Los Muertos is often mistakenly called “The Mexican Halloween”, because of its skeletal imagery and its relationship to the end of October. And there is some truth in that; there's always room for a touch of the macabre and a little spookiness. (It is, after all, one way humanity deals with its mortality.)
But the celebration is much more than that; it's a communing with the Spirits of the Dead, and the Souls of the Departed. It's the conceit that those who've passed are with us always, and remain part of the living family. Although referred to as ‘The Day of the Dead', the event actually takes place over three complete days.
The days before the event, the house is cleaned to make it presentable and welcoming to the spirits. Food is prepared, and a picnic banquet is planned. Candy skulls are made for the children, and flowers decorate the house. Sometimes calacas are placed about; these are the small statues and decorations you recognize as being finely dressed skeletal figures; more about these in a moment.
An altar is prepared in a corner of the home; on it are placed items familiar and precious to those who've passed on. Small toys are left for the dead children, and photos, flowers and food are placed on the altar to honor the adults.
On the second day of the event there is music and dancing and celebration, for it is believed that the Dead are now among the living, visiting and partaking in the celebration. Sometimes the children go from house to house and are giving small pieces of candy or coins; this is similar to our trick-or-treat tradition. The food on the altar is placed for the Dead to eat; some believe they partake of the ‘spiritual essence' of the meal, so the food is left for any visitors to eat and join the revelry.
Costumes and masks are worn; this is also similar to Halloween. Often faces themselves are painted in skull designs made more fanciful by beads and flowers. Because the skeleton is representative of the holiday, some wear costumes with shells attached so they rattle when they dance: clak-a-clik-a-clak! Others rattle and shake sticks or musical bones to invite the spirits to join the dancing. Clak-a-clik-a-clak! Bread is baked in the shape of skulls and twisted and frosted to look like bones.
Why the skeletons, you may ask? Because the calacas remind everyone that, no matter your station in life, Death is the great equalizer. You may be a politician, a banker, a musician, a beggar, or a thief, but under the skin and trappings of the living lies the skeleton, and all are equal once they've passed beyond the threshold. This is also no doubt why the Grim Reaper began to wear his skull features as he performed his tasks; to remind all that all are skeletons, all are the same, and all will be joining in the Dance in due time. Clik-a-clak-a-clik!
On the third day the families go to the graves themselves. They have a picnic feast on the actual gravesites and decorate the gravestones; they share stories of their loved ones, and laugh and enjoy la familia with those still hovering on this earthly plane. They will even leave a trail of bread crumbs from the village back to the cemeteries so that the Dead, weary and worn from the celebration, will be able to find their way back to their resting places without difficulty. Sometimes they also leave small altars and mementos at the gravesite itself in honor.
This is not a time of sorrow; this is a time of joy. All the celebration and festivities remind the participants that the veils between the worlds can be very thin indeed; that those who've left them are always with them in their hearts and memories; that someday all will be meeting again in a joyous reunion in another place and time. That life is brief, but good, and the time apart will be merely temporary. Every year the festivities repeat, every year more join the dance on both planes, and every year brings the loved ones closer to the final reuniting. Clik-a-clak-a-clik!
Some time ago I presented this wonderful short animated film
on my Parting Glass Page. I offer it to you again for your enjoyment
as a tribute to Dia De Los Muertos! Click on the image above.
I hope some of this has been intriguing and fascinating; I hope in some way it has been a comfort as well. I haven't even touched on the wonderful book and film of WHAT DREAMS MAY COME by Richard Matheson; it was recommended by Roger Ebert as a work to share with someone in the throes of grief, and it represents Mr. Matheson's sincere beliefs about what occurs on the other side. The film and book have differences, but both are worthy efforts that I commend to your attention. (You can learn about them on my SUBMITTED FOR YOUR APPROVAL Page.)
At the end of Thorton Wilder's classic play “Our Town”, the ghost of Emily, the young heroine, visits her home one final time and finds everyone engaged in their everyday rituals. She cries out: “Let's really look at one another!...It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed... Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners....Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking....and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths....and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
Then she speaks to the Stage Manager, the narrator and guide (and, I suppose, surrogate God figure) and asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?”
And the Stage Manager replies, “No. Saints and poets maybe...they do some.”
Here's a final secret regarding death; whatever the mystery may be, in this world life is for the living, and to be lived. The mysteries will wait, whatever awaits may well be completely different from what is around you. This is where the focus needs be and remains. Life is for living, as simple and silly as that may sound put into words. Death will wait.
A final, personal anecdote:
For many years the Patient Creatures and I were mainstays at the MONSTER BASH convention outside Pittsburgh , PA. The event is family friendly, and focuses on the classic Universal and Hammer films. It was always a splendid time; I miss attending very much. Because we were regular attendees, we grew quite close with the staff, and always looked forward to seeing them each year.
One year, as I arrived at the start of the first day's festivities, I met one of the young ladies running the information booth, and we talked of how she'd been since we'd last seen each other. She told me that things had been well until the beginning of the year (MONSTER BASH is traditionally held in June) but that she'd been through some difficult times. “My mother had been very sick for a while; she passed away earlier this year.”
I told her I was very sorry to hear about her loss, and offered any help I could during her grief. She smiled and thanked me, and then said something quite astonishing. “Yes, it was challenging at first; I had a hard time with her leaving. But when I was feeling very sad, I thought to myself: Carpathian is from the other side, and Grim and Kuzibah and the others. And I thought that these were such wonderful people, and if souls like them exist there, then it must be a pretty wonderful place to be.”
I'd always strived, both with the Creatures and in my own wanderings, to put a face on the unknown, and have it be warm, kindly and reflective of humanity. I was happy and gratified, in this small instance, to have succeeded.
Art by Stephen Mackey
Author David Gerrold, of STAR TREK's “The Trouble With Troubles” and the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel “The Martian Child”, wrote a series of short, elliptical proverbs in the manner of Robert Heinlein's “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, the collective wisdom of an immortal. Mr. Gerrold called his creation, with tongue firmly in cheek, “The Notebooks of Solomon Short”. And one of those proverbs is presented herewith, as a final word on this subject:
“Maybe death is the very best part of life; that's why God saves it for last.”
FROM MY PARTING GLASS PAGE OF MAY 2014:
Artwork by Hannes Bok ; from “Famous Fantastic Mysteries” , October 1947