“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Two Interments…but that’s enough to make the point
State law and convention regulate what we do with the dead. The Shades, Saint Ahab’s, and the Hebrew Burial Ground are home to a couple thousand of our former citizens, the vast majority of them embalmed, placed in sealed caskets, in the hope that each occupant will step forth at the last trump in need of nothing more than a change of clothes. Europeans and those farther afield are far more diverse in their dealings with the dead and our growing multiculturalism may alter local practice.
Visit the Catacombs in Paris or the Ossuary at Sedlec in Chechia, whose interior is bedecked with garlands and pyramidal stacks of human bones, a practice common in the late Middle Ages there, in Spain, and in Italy. All organic matter is removed from the corpse—historically with flesh-eating beetles, but I didn’t ask—and the bones are often grouped by type: femurs stacked here, skulls strung and dangling in graceful catenary curves above you.
Islamic and Jewish law require burial within twenty-four hours, as well as ritual bathing of the deceased beforehand. I once washed the body of my friend and found it a cathartic and contemplative moment, a stillness and focus outside of time, a brief suspension of self. It may be the most intimate act between two people without the risk of procreation.
An increasing number of us will be reduced to ash—even at the end, consumers of energy rather than generators. Read Frank Herbert’s Dune for for the insight of Fremen death rituals and our final responsibility to the tribe. Then there are several options for our ashen remains: retention in an urn and storage in a columbarium or at home—or, for that matter, at the church or 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 remainder of what you once were. Mine will be scattered in favorite spots: at ancient Delphi, in Greece, home of the oracle whose advice I should have sought, and in the garden of a historic home that shall remain unnamed. [Neither place is aware what they’re in for, so don’t let on.] Closer to home, I’m thinking of two interments and who reside in each.
Prominently sited at The Shades and conspicuous from the entry is the mausoleum of Agincourt’s half-term mayor Edmund FitzGerald Flynn. The sole clue to its occupants are the back-to-back F’s in the entablature—a rare moment of discretion for hizzoner and just possibly a metaphor for the relationship between him and his wife. Its narcissistic grandiosity is otherwise relieved only by graceful proportions and elegant detail, attributable in large measure to his widow Amity Burroughs Flynn, who occupies a shelf above Ed—both in the tomb and the hearts of Agincourters—and is generally credited with its design.
At the other end of the spectrum—and you should be highly suspect here, since I may be an occupant soon enough—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. No bronze doors here, nor inscription, nor elegant fluted Ionic shaft, but a simple cellar door accessing what most believe are the lawn mower and garden tools for church grounds maintenance. Most who avail the chapel’s quiet dignity are unaware what lies beneath, on wooden shelves in the rough equivalent of mason jars, nor why their eternal rest is so discrete.
Suddenly Sir Christopher Wren comes to mind. In the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, there is plaque above Wren’s tomb that reads simply: “If ye seek a monument, look about you.”