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τεθνήκαμεν. σώζετε δάκρυα ζώσιν. / We are dead. Save tears for the living.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor


State law and convention regulate what we do with the dead. The Shades, St Ahab’s, and the Hebrew Burial Ground are home to a couple thousand former citizens, the majority of them embalmed, hermetically sealed, in the hope the occupants will step forth at the last trump, needing little more than a change of clothes. Europeans and other cultures farther afield are far more diverse in their burial practices and our growing multiculturalism may yet alter the pleasantries of local custom here.

Visit Sedlec in Czechia and its Ossuary, whose interior is bedecked with garlands and pyramidal piles of human bones, a practice once common there, in Spain, and in Italy. All flesh is removed from the skeleton by means of a species of beetle — don’t ask — and the bones are then grouped by type: femurs stacked here, skulls strung in graceful catenary curves over there. [Frankly, I haven’t thought about catenary curves since Sixth Grade.]

Islamic and Jewish law require burial within twenty-four hours, following a ritual bathing of the deceased. I once washed the body of my friend and found the cleansing worked both ways: it was a calm and contemplative moment; the suspension of self; a focused stillness like none other I’ve known. It may be the most intimate act between two friends, without risk of procreation.

An increasing number of us will be reduced to ash; even at our end, the last chance to give of ourselves, we are consumers of energy. Read Frank Herbert’s Dune for insight to Fremen death rituals and what could be our final responsibility to the tribe.

There are several options for our ashen residue: placement in an urn on the shelf of a columbarium or at home — or, for that matter, in the narthex of your church, at the lodge hall, or why not the bowling alley or your favorite watering hole. There are potters who will make a glaze of you for the pot that holds the rest. Hal Holt’s ashes are at Gnostic Grove; and mine will be scattered at two favorite spots: ancient Delphi in Greece, home of the Oracle whose advice I’d like to have had, and at Hillhouse, Helensburgh, residential masterpiece of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. [Neither place is aware of what’s in store, so don’t let on.] Closer to home, I’m reminded of two exceptional places of interment and who resides there.

Strategically sited at The Shades, and conspicuous from several directions, is the mausoleum of Agincourt’s half-term mayor Edmund FitzGerald Flynn. The sole understated clue to its occupants are the entwined back-to-back F’s in the entablature, FitzGerald Flynn wrapped in himself for eternity. The building’s narcissistic grandiosity is relieved only by its graceful proportions and elegant, borderline feminine detail — attributed to his widow Amity Burroughs Flynn, who occupies the shelf above Ed, perhaps the only instance of Hizzoner not getting the upper hand.

Its spectral opposite is the Tennant family crypt, hidden beneath St Crispin’s chapel, itself tucked into a corner between the nave and chancel of St Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal church. [Take my words here cautiously, since I may be an occupant soon enough.] No bronze doors though; no inscription, nor elegant Ionic shaft, but a simple cellar door hiding what might be the church’s lawn mower and other garden tools for grounds maintenance. Most who avail themselves of the chapel’s quiet intimacy are unaware who lies beneath, nor why their eternal rest is so discrete.

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. What’s the Latin for “look beneath you”?

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