The Unquiet Grave: A Meditation for Allhallows

FireHeart 4 Cover for EarthSpiritThe Unquiet Grave: A Meditation for Allhallows
by Catherine Madsen

By remembering the dead we are reminded that life is deeds which caress and flay the souls of others. JULIUS LESTER

The dead are nourished by judgments, the living by love. ELIAS CANETTI

The novelist Mary Austin, in her spiritual memoir Experiences Facing Death, talks about the concept of “educating our ancestors.” She came across this concept in conversation with a shaman of the Pueblo Indians, the Priest of the Bow, some time after the First World War. He told her that war tended to arise when spiritual energy was at a low ebb (that energy which his tradition called orenda or wakonda) and that its aftermath generated a kind of static or chaos underneath all later social life until the spirits of the dead were given rest. “It was all predicated,” Austin wrote, “on the tribal conviction that consciousness is inherently indestructible, and that no limb of humanity, though apparently severed by death, is ever without its reciprocal effect upon the whole body of a self-cognizing race.”

As she understood the spiritual climate following the First World War, it was marked by “the orenda of Germans in a state of high interior activity over their group destiny, the wakonda of Americans in the throes of one of the periodic fluctuations of possessiveness to which their economic constitution exposes them; the orenda set up by the sudden appearance on the windy Plains of the Hereafter of a million newly dead.” The Priest of the Bow told her that “the white man never took pains to placate the souls of those he had slain by adopting them into his tribe. He told me exactly how it was done and advised if it were omitted after this war, the sort of thing that has happened would happen.”

Experiences Facing Death was published in 1931.

Whether because the souls of the slain were not appeased, or for some other chain of reasons, what eventually followed the First World War was far beyond what Mary Austin or the Priest of the Bow foresaw. Both Germans and Americans, in their extremity of spirit, devised methods of violent death that had till then been inconceivable; the numbers of the dead increased still more, with immeasurable suffering both to them and to those who survived. We who come after inherit an earth in which those dead are never at rest; we breathe an air heavy with their presence. We have known, as long as we have known anything beyond our own private lives, that they were present. We feel them mock us for our lightness, our naïveté, our wanting to live.

We have a duty to the dead, and we do not know how to do it. And the idea of “educating our ancestors” or “adopting those we have slain” goes against our whole culture’s sense of what is possible. How can we appease the dead? What could we offer them that they would want? How can anything of that kind make a difference? We cannot educate our ancestors enough to make time run backward and take back those deaths; we cannot (except for those among us who dream of the dead or see them in waking visions) even be certain there is contact between the living and the dead, that the dead are still themselves in anything but memory.

But in memory the dead are most of all themselves; that is why we mourn them, because when someone dies a self has gone out of the world. A mind and an imagination and a voice have been silenced, through the destruction of a body that once was live and warm. The Talmud says, “Whoever saves a life saves a world”; multiply that by six million. Multiply it by the number of all those who have died — some two hundred million — in all the wars of this century. Remember that among that number there are also worlds we would not have saved, people who caused so much suffering to others that their death is only a relief. It is selves we are talking about, always: the dead are not faceless ghosts but the sum and character of each lived life. That is why we want conversation with them.

The more we are influenced by the dominant academic and scientific climate, the more used we are to taking an anthropological and not a personal approach to the idea of “ancestors.” Except in the purely descriptive sense of one’s line of descent, ancestors are something other people have: primitive, irrational, backward types, people who practice “ancestor worship.” Civilized moderns bury their dead and cease to think about them, except for the inevitable grief of missing them and the long fear of joining them. But why do we think the suppression of mourning rational, the casting off of one’s own dead civilized?

The Christian view of death, of which we hear so much, is hopeful: the dead will be raised. They will be restored, their bodies reanimated: death is not a tragedy because it will be undone. Mourning, though it may be emotionally necessary, is metaphysically inappropriate. The dead are on their way to real life. What matters is where they will spend it: whether, in this earthly prelude, they have earned reward or punishment, desired Christ or rejected him. And, if they desired Christ, we will meet them again (if we too desire him), and if they rejected him their fate is beyond mourning.

In Christianity it does not much matter who our ancestors are, or to whom we are connected by all the ties of flesh; what matters is what we believe. Continuity is broken; faith is everything. The soul is naked before God, its antecedents left behind. Christ died, it is said, so that we might have life eternal; but only if we hate father and mother for his sake shall we enter the kingdom of heaven. In its origin this is a statement of spiritual transformation and the primacy of the individual conscience; in its effects it is often a dislocation from compassionate community life, the shifting balance of involvement and detachment that is necessary between imperfect (and imperfectible) human beings.

Billy Graham once said in a newspaper column that God has no grandchildren. He meant that each new generation must be converted all over again: that no one really inherits Christianity, no matter how many generations of their family have been Christian. Many people with no longing for transformation and no liking for theology do, of course, remain Christian because their families were; in all but the newest denominations of the church, the majority are there not by conversion but by habit. But a religion whose chief imperative is to make converts must, as soon as one takes it seriously, become unstable. Belief can wax and wane and change its shape in an endless variety of ways; when there are no pagans left, the Christians must start converting each other. Indeed there is a sense in which Christians have no grandparents: every Christian denomination has an uneasy relationship with its antecedents, and most have come into being out of outrage and despair at the established churches of their day. Christianity as a whole is inclined to disown all its ancestors, both Jew and Greek, as failed people who possessed only shadows of the truth. Honor the ancestors? But the ancestors are discredited, they were wrong; they were pagans, and we converted them; they strayed from the faith, and we burned them; they were schismatics, and we denounced them. Even our first ancestors, who foretold the Messiah — when he came they did not know him; what have they to do with us?

The history of western civilization — increasingly the history of the world — is the history of Christianity’s haunting by the peoples it derives from and disowns. It is a history that keeps trying to be born again. Even when Christianity is itself among the things disowned, the vacuum it leaves among its apostates is still quintessentially Christian. Secular society refuses to think of the ancestors with respect: it leaves them behind in the wake of progress and demands that we “cope” with our grief. Over and over it tries to discard what it does not want, the heresies, the impurities, the rivals; but nothing is lost, even the victims of the Inquisition still leave their traces on the air. Those who have no compassion for the ancestors will get no compassion from them: the ancestors refuse to be decently eradicated, they ride the wind and mock at the living. Irish fairy lore tells of the Sidhe, the host of the air, who laugh at poor mortals and are not subject to right and wrong; the unquiet dead have taken right and wrong with them, and laugh at the self-righteous living who think they still possess it. When will Christians say that doctrine is of no moment next to the life of one breathing, thinking human being? When will secular society understand that the past is not gone, that nothing is ever superseded, that there is no such thing as waste? On that day, right and wrong may deign to return to the living.

But those who leave father and mother for the sake of the kingdom of heaven can never accept them as mere father and mother; they must always see them as huge and dangerous embodiments of evil, trying to drag them back from heaven to earth. Yet all the time these are people their own size, people whom they can hurt; people they can grow up to, even surpass in certain ways, while they remain indebted in others. Even the Inquisitors were our fellow mortals, as we know the Nazis were; that is the hideousness and pity of human history, that all acts of cruelty and neglect, all lies and tortures, are inflicted by mortals on other mortals, people who are going to die anyway. What is it to know that life is short, and yet desire to shorten other people’s lives? What is it to turn living people forcibly into the ancestors?

“The ancestors” — the very word calls up images of a calm, rote piety, little shrines, gifts of food to the dead who have no mouths to eat it. But can any rote piety survive the death of someone you know by name? To see a life you know suddenly rounded, cut, incapable of addition of subtraction, is shocking, even when it is an expected and peaceful death. To see a body you know become a corpse is to learn (and with each death to learn all over again) that death is not an end but an interruption — that it makes the person not so much nonexistent as permanently incomplete, unreachable and unchangeable, incapable of answering. Except in the way the dead can answer, out of the air; the answer that seems to come from the elements themselves, patient and inevitable. And that is not the answer the unquiet dead want to give. They mock us out of bitter envy, because we have what they have lost: bodies, the possibility of directness, the realm of time. They want to be warm.

Yet because we go on listening for an answer — because their absence is so palpable to us, and so intolerable — we do hold conversation with the dead. I am not talking about conjurations, raising ghosts, importuning the dead with our questions or our loneliness. I am talking about a broken, yet genuine, conversation. There is a level on which all time is simultaneous: not the level of action, as if we might forestall any event of the past that ought not to have happened; but the level of speech, the level at which one can read the words of a person long dead and say, “Plato says.” One can carry on longstanding arguments with living writers one has never met or written to; in their next work, or on the next rereading, they will seem to hear and reply. One can do the same with a writer who has been dead for years or centuries; or with the dead of one’s own family, whose speech one remembers; or with the dead whose words or deeds someone else has preserved in writing. One speaks to them as though they could hear; it is automatic, even when one cannot possibly expect an answer. One puts the question out, as though its mere urgency must call forth a reply. “But what if –” “But your premise is impossible.” “But why did you do it?” As though the answer were implicit in the scheme of things. As if it would come out of the air.

To take part in this conversation is not to “believe in” life after death, as such belief is ordinarily understood. It is far too instinctive and unconscious to be a belief. We do not know what state the dead are in, only that they are present to us. They have gone where time is simultaneous; we live where time is consecutive. That consecutiveness is a limitation on us, not on them. They are present in this time because they are present in all times. We ourselves are not entirely estranged from simultaneous time: we understand it and address its tenants without an effort. It is just that we cannot live there.

“For know there are two worlds of life and death,” says The Earth to Shelley’s Prometheus:

One that which thou beholdest, but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live,

Till death unite them and they part no more.That is to say: according to simultaneous time we are in a sense already dead, even while we live and make choices and endure very present pains. All that we do in life, our actions and our inactions, our passions and our abdications, our striving against death and our wasting time as though death would never come, spins out into the self we become when we are dead. It is this self, perhaps, by which the dead recognize us, and with which they hold conversation.

What we do not have with the dead is bodily life. We do not have that kind of conversation in which the answer is given in direct response to the question, and we are sure it is. We do not have the audible voice, the answering look, the moving structure (solid and infinitely frail) of muscle and bone and blood. We may have everything else with the dead — intellect, emotional connection, shared knowledge of what moves the world — but where one body cannot warm another there is no direct relationship. Whatever we give to the dead we must give roundabout, by way of the living.

The immense generation born in America following the Second World War is in particular need of conversation with the dead, and has never been encouraged to undertake it. The society that brought this generation forth did not see itself, for the most part, as answerable to the dead: it wanted normality, prosperity, the signs of life’s continuance. As proof of its prosperity, it treated its children as ornaments: the age of responsibility was postponed and compromised as far as possible, they were not given history but the Mickey Mouse Club. Schools did not teach them about the horror and misery of Hitler’s camps or of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: usually these things were barely mentioned, falling into the cracks somewhere between “history” and “current events.” In youth, many of them came to disdain the conformity and materialism to which they had been raised, and tried to achieve a synthesis of private and public life, but their education was too narrow and their fury at their elders too great to make that synthesis long-lasting. As adults, most have found they are not really wanted in public life, except to keep the wheels of commerce turning smoothly; whatever dignity and peace they attain in private life is constantly called into question by the implacable needs of job and shopping mall. There has always been a curious collectivity to their lives: the way they all went to school together, all learned the language of television and then of protest, grew their hair long or cut it short, decided when to have children, as if their lives must always be, whether they wish it or not, a media event and not the making of many distinct souls. As the dead before them were killed in masses, they were born in masses, and the world has never cared for either but as numbers. The cheery little tag “baby boom” hides an annihilating truth: not selves. Redundant. Interchangeable.

The making of souls is religion — or so we call it when public life and work life and education avoid talking of the soul. But what religion can stand against the erosion of knowledge and responsibility? If job and shopping mall are the chief reminders of public life (we vote, but as Helen Keller said, “we choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee”), then we become insulated not only from want but from significance. The making of souls becomes a sad private hobby, a sideline for those who have time and patience for it, unconnected with the real business of life, the routine of getting and spending. The people of the postwar generation were offered, from the start, trivial lives; their collective effort to transcend them ended in fragmentation and confusion; the trivial survived intact. Here too, the society that has no compassion for the dead has had none for the living.

Some of them — mostly those of European descent, and mostly those whose families a generation or two back were practicing Christians or Jews, but who were themselves raised without religion — have begun to establish neopagan groups, taking from folklore and archaeology and mystical experience the basis for a half-revived and half-invented religious practice; taking also from the history of the Inquisition the sense that they too have suffered, that they have not, alone among the peoples of the western world, escaped dread and danger. Having no intimate experience of the established religions, or else an experience that seems to them morally compromising and better left behind, they have no sense that only those religions are possible; they can gather their religion from the whole field of the past and the whole breadth of the world.

At times there is a hopeful innocence in these efforts that recalls too much the Mickey Mouse Club: an emphasis on celebration and renaming and starting anew in a world too old and too cynical and too corrupt for such games. The romanticism of goddess-worship, the presumption of borrowing anybody else’s rites, the readiness of young white people to identify with the burned witches as if grasping for a form of oppression in which they are for once on the right side: all these are sincere enough, but something short of serious. The world eats mouseketeers alive: it turns them into Hitler Jugend, dancing in a ring in the meadow with garlands in their hair, while their big brothers are down at the depot with bayonets, herding human “vermin” into trains. But something far more complex and profound is possible to a pagan revival, so far as it aims not simply to ignore the centuries of Christian domination, but to amend them.

Neopagans in general (both of the postwar generation and of the more formally established covens of a generation or two before) view what they are doing as nature religion — preferring the present life to a longed-for or dreaded afterlife, the complexity of the relations between living creatures to the complexity of theology, and a practical concept of sin to a metaphysical. They are horrified and distressed to learn of the undercurrent of nature religion in the Nazi Party, and how it was turned to nationalism and anti-Semitism and finally to slavery and murder. They reject this kind of power so thoroughly that many of them dread participating in history at all — a dread for which their whole education and place in the economy has prepared them, but to which this revelation adds moral weight. They teeter on the edge of shame; a feeling that whatever one tries to say can only make the world worse, that to vanish without a trace is their public duty, that to dance around a fire chanting old names is the best they can do. The very idea of ethics seems unattainable: who are we to think of ethics? We will be lucky to gain a sufficient sense of personal power.

But the Nazi ideology was aiming (through the enlistment of people who felt too insignificant for ethics and too weak in personal power) to undo history. It wanted to serve nature because nature was strong and fierce, and because nature was cyclical: nature would never bring them anything unexpected like the survival of the unfit or the defeat of the master race. In trying to undo history they merely succeeded in writing one of history’s cruelest chapters, and everyone who knows of it knows that history cannot be undone. And everyone who lives in this later and more subtly disastrous time knows that nature is not cyclical: as the sea rises and the earth parches and the temperate lands grow hot, the human race is imposing a history on nature at a faster rate than it can bear. Ethics must be thought of; we must think of them whether we feel significant or not; we must think of them both in relation to people and to the earth. Neopagans are in a position, if they will, not simply to devise a religion for the comfortably disenfranchised, but to reformulate the relationship of nature and history.

Such a reformulation — if it were done with care, and without too shallow a sense of religion as consolation — would listen less to beautiful and strange old myths than to the tragic voices of those whom history has come close to silencing. So far as it was intended to amend the Christian domination, it would pay the most serious attention to Jewish experience and thought; a paganism that did not do so would not alter the Christian habit, and would also miss the most intelligent, conscientious, and intact source of resistance to Christianity in the history of the West. (And it is a source that is particularly concerned with amendment, not so much in terms of personal repentance as in terms of compassionate and intelligent action in the world.) The experience and thought of indigenous American peoples, so sore beset by Christianity in other ways, is also essential to hear, and gives a view of nature not as Darwinian strife but as a network of kin. The translation of African religious traditions into Christianity which the slaves and their descendants accomplished (as well as the African traditions that survive independent of Christianity, both in America and Africa) is also profoundly revealing. In spite of vast differences between all these traditions — different balances between urban and rural, written and oral, historical and geographical bases — there are important points of contact. None of them sees itself as “religion,” above and apart from daily life, but each is a means of encompassing daily life and making it a deliberate and communal “way.” None wants to master the world, or to renounce matter for a purer state; the interaction between the material and the immaterial is of the highest importance, but neither subsumes the other. And in each tradition the ancestors are highly honored and their presence is felt and desired.

In comparison with these, it is almost impossible to trace the voices of the European pagans: history has silenced them indeed. If we think to recover them by studying what was lost in the Inquisition, we will find we are much too late. Christianity in the early centuries did not object to adopting the ancestors if it might so speed the conversion of the descendants, and it absorbed feast days and gods and holy places with an open heart; and it changed them to accord with its theology. They took on the Christian cosmology, and the Christian obsession with virginity and martyrdom, and the insidious poison of the Christian quarrel with the Jews. There was no longer anything strictly pagan. The people who died under the Inquisition were not punished for being pagans but for being heretics (and many of them, during the witch persecutions, essentially for being women); they were not suspected of being unconverted but of worshipping the devil. If there was indeed a “horned god” in Europe before the Christians came, as certain recent scholars have said, he too had already been converted. Whether, as god or devil, he actually commanded worship, or whether the conspiracy was largely a figment of paranoid and misogynist imagination, is a matter of considerable debate. What we know beyond any debate is that a great number of people suffered false accusation and perished in torment during those centuries. If we cannot find out their religion, we must still be moved by their pain. Perhaps the only unanimity they had was in their pain. Perhaps that is the real reason for honoring them.

Nothing remains of their thought — stripping away the speculations and fantasies of Sir James Frazer, Margaret Murray, and a host of lesser lights — but some scattered folk traditions, some ancient earthworks and carvings, and a calendar. And the calendar is the most stone-faced and uncommunicative one of all: the solar calendar, the circling of the planet round its star. We know it from the seasons, seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, the elemental conditions against which we struggle to live. It originates away from the human community altogether, in the inanimate, the vast silent spaces where one body cannot warm another. This is nature religion at its most inscrutable. The solstices and the equinoxes — are they revelations? Do they speak to us, do they care for us, do they give us the law?

Or is the essential question not their silence but our answer? If the sun and the elements do not speak to us in words, do we not still hear in words? Are we not so constituted, by nature itself, as to answer? And must not any answer we give now be cognizant of history? If the pagan religions of Europe were cyclical once, they are historical now: Christianity has given them a history. Conversion, suppression, inquisition have changed them utterly; there is nothing to return to. There are no innocent, older ways: all that we do now must incorporate the knowledge of rupture and loss, the terrible wisdom of the persecuted.

Even in the ancient calendar, nature and history so far intersected that there was a day of the dead; it fell at the midpoint between fall equinox and winter solstice, at the end of the harvest. It is still celebrated in fragmented form: publicly, by little children in costume in the streets, and privately by high-church Christians honoring their saints. The Inquisition leaves its mark in the profusion of peaked black hats and broomsticks that signify “witches.” The evening and the morning are divided, the one for ghosts and demons, and the other for the holy. But if we know that the dead are selves, not so simply saved or damned, but complicated and unfinished as they lived, another view becomes possible. Allhallows becomes a time for seeing them whole, searchingly and with compassion: those who suffered and those who inflicted suffering, the worlds we would have saved and the worlds we would not have saved, what they intended and what they accomplished. Until we try to see then whole, we cannot know either for them or for ourselves the first imperative of ethical life: that the other must be protected because he or she is other, that no self must be effaced.

This protection is the ground of community life, and we will need it more and more in the years ahead. It is not habitual to us: neither to the postwar generation, so used to simply insulating ourselves from each other’s presence, nor to those of every generation who live by making and selling the unnecessary. Protection is not on anybody’s mind: it makes us think of mothers and infants. It should make us think of the unquiet dead, for whom there was none.

It is the human habit — since long before the advent of our present economy, perhaps since the dawn of consciousness — to live by sacrificing the necessary to the unnecessary: kindness to correctness, truth to consolation, the person to the myth. We learn what is necessary only after it is gone. In that deprivation we must learn to cast away the unnecessary too: to become like the ancestors, who have no more myths or consolations, whose breath on the wind is blown out in silent laughter at us who think we need such things. We may choose whatever gods we like, but it is the ancestors who give us the law.

There is a fragment of a dialogue in Adrienne Rich’s poem “From an Old House in America”:

I try to understand
he said
what will you undertake
she said

— which, besides the purpose for which she meant it, is the tersest statement of the subordination of gnosis to ethics I know. That is, it does not finally matter what we believe: it does not matter if we have the true doctrine, it does not matter if we have the right attitude. What matters is what we will undertake. If we undertook, in our religious life, to face the full tragedy of our age, without false hope, but also without helplessness — if we undertook the protection of the vulnerable, and the flowering of regard and sympathy and mind and civilization that comes from that protection — then we might learn what it means to adopt the dead.

Catherine Madsen is a contributing editor to the interreligious journal CrossCurrents and the author of a novel about abortion politics, A Portable Egypt. She is at work on a critique of modern liturgical language in mainstream Christianity and Judaism, The Bones Reassemble: Recovering Liturgical Speech. “The Unquiet Grave” was first presented at a Halloween conference in Detroit in 1987, then published in Fireheart #4 (1989), p. 24.

Special thanks to Judy Harrow for transcribing this article.