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The Other Side of Everything

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Written on June 15, 2005, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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In the midst of life, I am in death. That’s assuming I die at 86, which would be a good tally. The death I am in is an interesting one. It involves an old burial ground, two Norwegian artists, several musicians, a landscape architect, and a band of campanologists.

To explain sans mystification: my life and my study of death seem to be overlapping. I have now been awarded the singular responsibility and honour of producing a mixed-and-multi-media art event in my local park (ex-graveyard), to take place end of July. To that end I have been researching the place and its wonderful history and you, oh funky reader, shall be the heir to this information. Meanwhile, I have been working like buggery to get the thing off the ground and hence the lack of daily beats in the normal regular rhythm of this blog. Like a stuttering heart, it fights to stay alive, resuming its pulse and continuing to pump oxygen-rich blood to the brain.

The first death book I read – i.e. a book on the subject of death, rather than featuring it for literary purposes – was Lyall Watson’s The Romeo Error (1974). A. Ishikawa (Tokyo, Japan) – writes this Amazon review: “A most fascinating, intriguing look at the biology of death. Not at all morbid! An excellent study of the nature of death from a biological view with interesting anecdotes of how society has dealt with the subject in the past as well as the present – there is still debate about the actual point of death! Highly recommended as are all of Lyall Watson’s books.

Lyall will be lodged forever in the minds of the martial artists of Great Britain for having brought TV Sumo to these shores, via his excellent and knowledgeable coverage of that particularly broad thread of Japanese culture. His books were mostly pop science, but nicely written, accessible, and I can blame him for my lifelong interest in esoterica. The Romeo Error provided me with my first foray into the long drawn-out process of death, showing how blurred is the line across which we all pass, and may pass back. Since reading that book, I have been extremely interested in those stories which show just how little we know about this moment, this state, this change in our biological status. I suggest reading it if only for the description of what the body does in order to die, and afterwards, in repose, what astonishing processes occur in order to break us down into constituent parts of organic matter for reprocessing as worm-food.

Death is a big subject, central to our existence, but unlike love, we generally steer clear of it, at least, until it is staring us in the face. We fall upon ritual and belief systems and superstition to aid us during times of being near to it, or when loved ones are near to it; and it is rare for even the most secular among us not to find themselves conforming, and offering prayers privately if not in public, and this is no bad thing. Prayers do more than comfort the well and the living, in our marvellously complex inter-connected world, but even on that basis, they serve an important function. After all, death is not just the breaking down of some organic robot whose company you happen to enjoy, it is a fundamental signifier of our common humanity, one of the holy trinity: sex, death and music.

The subject of death, once very scary for me, is now a place in which I feel unusually liberated, and I have no problem looking forward to it, which is not to say I am anticipating it fearlessly. I have been enjoying my research. Two interesting pieces: on Romany customs and Haitian. Both obscurely Christian and rather concerned that the spirits of the departed don’t return malevolently , in the case of Zombies, to tear and eat the flesh of the living.

Having read far too much gothic and horror literature in general, and Edgar Allan Poe’s Premature Burial in particular, the idea of being encased in a coffin and stuck six feet under has never appealed. Cremation neither, as Lyall Watson’s book is full of examples of people who have apparently been dead and then woken up. The idea of awaking to the smell of yourself roasting is not appealing, though I always quite liked Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) in which the main protagonist is eaten (oops! given that one away) whilst attending his own funeral feast (can you grok it? yes you can!)

For my own disposal, the Native American tradition of tree burial seems apt: “…a body was left, wrapped in a beautiful animal skin robe, in a tree or on a scaffold. Sacred items may be tied to the tree around the body. After decomposition the skeletal remains were often removed and buried, although the skull was kept by some peoples and placed on an ancestor shrine.” Or maybe, Tibetan sky burial, where the body is cut up and fed to the birds and animals. Parts of the body may even be made into instruments, skull drums being a popular artifact. Hit me!

As to the enormous question of where we go (if we go) when we die (if it is death) – and the unavoidable human fact of suffering and loss – our mortality – we all be looking for answers, but we often find more questions. Tomorrow, in a bold effort to restore normality to my weekly scrivening, I will tell you a tale of such a quest. Meanwhile, here’s Jeremy.

Say hello, now, he won’t bite.

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This thing has 3 Comments

  1. dave bones
    Posted 15 June, 2005 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    definately want to come to this event do put date up. did you catch that exhibition in Brick lane or any of the tv performance autopsys by the guy in the hat?

    the indian stuff reminds me of the temple in Bombay where they leave bodies out. Zorothustians I think.

  2. transience
    Posted 15 June, 2005 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    i shall have to research on what death ritual i like best. i shall keep you posted.

  3. Blog ho
    Posted 15 June, 2005 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    working like buggery…very nice.

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