My son has developed a recent and intense curiosity about mortality. “I really want to know what it feels like to die,” he says to me often these days, frequently as I’m tucking him in. “I wish I knew what happens to people. But when you find out, then you can’t tell anyone.” I think our roommate is a bit uncomfortable with what comes across as a morbid fixation, extending to matter-of-fact statements like “He [our cat, who purrs nearly non-stop] will stop purring when he dies,” and, of YouTubers with no recent uploads, “Maybe they killed themselves.” And yet, while clearly his conversational sensitivity is still undergoing fine-tuning, there is something extraordinarily pure in his musings.
They are not motivated by angst or disillusion. He simply wants to know. It seems the gist of his many queries is– Isn’t this strange? Here is something momentous that happens to absolutely everyone, but no one can tell me what it’s like? And what ideas can help to make sense of it?
“I believe it’s like having a long dreamless sleep and never waking up,” he says, yet unwilling to quite equate this with an idea that a person simply ends, becomes nothing. He speaks of self, hovering between conceptions of body and brain as the whole, and of spirit that exists similarly between the dead and the unliving; the great-grandmother he barely remembers, and the stones he pulls from the dirt and arranges on shelves. It is a dance that is remarkable to watch, and worth treading carefully around, this bit of growing up.
In my studies as a medievalist, I read and wrote about how changing religious traditions affected and reflected attitudes toward dying and the dead. In this, as with so many issues to which it alludes, “Beowulf” presents a deceptively small window that opens onto a vast sea-change. It begins, after all, with a lovingly wrought telling of an equally lovingly arranged ship burial, a tradition whose roots extend to prehistory– which was, we must remember, a recent state of affairs for the Germanic peoples of the first millennium– but whose demise can be concretely mapped to those peoples’ assimilation to and of Roman and Celtic Christianity. And it ends with a corpse that is buried, but first burned. Beowulf’s funeral is a portrait of a people grieving a dear loss and, what’s one and the same, fearing for the fate of a society whose heroes are gone. A telling detail is that with him was sacrificed– destroyed, or at least, interred, and gone from circulation– a store of wealth: a practice the incoming Church energetically worked to replace with contributions on behalf of the departed’s immortal soul, with far-reaching economic implications.
Yes, “Beowulf” is a transitional (arguably self-consciously so) text steeped in turbulent social transitions regarding and mirroring the deeply personal transitions they contextualize. Marriage, the forging and fragility of political alliance, the succession of leadership, the taming of wild things and places, and not least, death. By comparison, an Anglo-Saxon living in the Global Northwest today would likely observe no collective turmoil at all with regards to end of life and burial practices. I wonder sometimes whether, from a psychological perspective, this eases or complicates our private meanderings around mortality. What questions would a child some 1300 years ago have asked, and what answers would she have found, and from where?
I have feared death; I have laid awake nights stricken about it. I have sought it out, and come closer than is comfortable to talk about. More recently, I think about the concept of “second death”– the point, hidden somewhere in the future, when a dead person is mentioned for the last time. The time after which one will never be remembered, personally, again. It strikes me that the diversity in the time between one’s death and “second death” is overwhelmingly more vast than the diversity among lifespans. I consider a future lacking not only me, but memory of me. I scan myself for an emotional reaction, and there is less than I anticipated. The unhurried curiosity I experience is, perhaps, recognizable beside my son’s.
At some point my own death and memory came to seem really not very important to me, in sight of the death I fear of so much that is larger and more lasting and more beautiful than I am. There was a time when I wanted my death to mean something; there were times when I wished death could erase all traces of me like a “Replace All” function with nothing in the second field. Now when I worry, I think about waste. Product in, product out. Seeders, leechers, and peers. Things worth going back inside for when the house burns down, when the house will burn down. Is this part of not being young anymore, but not yet being old? Is it part of loving a child?
Popular tradition, riffing more on Celtic than Germanic folk themes, and drip-brewed through centuries of Christian influence, paints in impressionistic strokes a thinning of the walls between worlds, a blurring of lines, a resurfacing or drawing near of souls past or beings beyond, on this particular day each year. A night of spooks; a day of saints. The emotional reasoning appeals: at no time does transition write itself in nature more than mid-autumn, when the length of daylight seems to dwindle all of a piece, and migration and foraging seem goaded on to a frenzy by certain but unpredictable descent of winter and its stillness.
It is a fine time for wood fires. The lengthier darkness and inviting chill means more chance to sit and watch the dance of the flames against the shadow, together or alone. There are hours yet before we need to sleep.