Monday, May 28, 2007

Re-Membering the Dead

I have a rose in my garden called "Memorial Day." Its flowers are a warm, pale pink, it smells like an antique damask rose, and the flowers normally are large and abundant. The catalogue I got it from says it was "invented" a few years ago as a rose to honor the dead on this holiday, as that is when it is normally in bloom.

But today, it appears to be dead.

I transplanted it last fall from my garden in Boston, where I had originally planted it in honor of my cat, Ziggy, who lay buried beneath it. There was also a white rose bush (name unknown, with reddish leaves and flowers that have no scent, so it must be a newer hybrid) planted over him, which I had dug up from my parents' yard when they sold their house a few years ago. That rose bush has also been transplanted to my new home and is doing fine, and in betwen, the roses were transplanted to one garden plot over from my first one, so in all they've been transplanted several times. When I had to move from that garden site last fall, I decided to bring Ziggy's roses to Albany, where one of them is thriving well. His "essence" is contained in them, as his body is most likely now one with the soil that lay beneath them (I brought some of that soil here too)

I have not given up on the Memorial Day Rose, although it should also be said that out of five new rose bushes I planted last fall (all ordered from catalogues by mail), onky one is thriving. Maybe I just don't know how to grow roses.

But the whole thing has me pondering what it means to honor the dead in the traditional way people do on this day: visiting cemeteries and laying flowers or wreaths or other tokens of remembrance. A few years ago I theorized that people leave flowers for a pragmatic reason in addition to the symbolic one (a beautiful of expression of life in the midst of death): to cover the smell of decay. I mean, in the old days, at least in this country, there was no embalming (the ancient Egyptians did it, using sweet-smelling substances like sandalwood, myrrh and frankincense to scent the bodies of their loved ones, and preservatives like honey to preserve their skin for the long journey awaiting them), so one can imagine the smell of death was an avoidable thing, like flu epidemics or infant mortality. Nowadays, we try very hard to avoid any reminder of the decay of the body that sets in after we die. The embalming process used by most funeral services effectively makes us into taxidermy specimens, shells of skin without fluids or organs that decay quickly, that would corrupt the air with the stench that is not only unpleasant but also, perhaps, a horrifying reminder of our own mortality that humans recognize whether they have ever experienced it before or not.

Dead bodies are dangerous, too: diseases like encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain) can be spread from exposure to rotting corpses. But we also fear these bodies for other, not so obvious reasons: our brains become inflamed with the idea that the dead may rise and attack us, or take us with them to the land they have newly visited. Horror movies tell us the dead that arise are lonely, hungry, angry, vengeful. The image of the seductive vampire, the flesh-eating ghoul, the mindless zombie, all remind us that the dead want us. They desire the living because they desire life again. The dead leave us behind, and we cling to life more urgently than before. We miss them, but most of the time we have no desire to join them, we'd rather they come back to us (hence the constant obsession with ghosts and spirits of the dead that permeates human history and its literature, in every language). But they can't. And this makes us angry, too. And fearful. And so we have learned to be disgusted by death, and the stench of the corpse is a strong catalyst for that fear and disgust. Racial memory or the collective unconscious, if you read your Jungian psychology, embodies all human experiences, and our sensual memories, especially olfactory ones, must be encoded and inscribed into us all. Death is the one sure human experience we will all undergo once we have been born. So we recognize it and never forget it, from one lifetime to the next, like the remembered scent of a flower we've never been exposed to. A deja vu of smells, remembered from the millennia of human existence, lives in us all: blood, water, animals, the forest, the sea, food, storms, fire, death.

But why, then, do we not shy away from the small of death in other contexts? Many of us love the smell of soil, and what is soil but composted remains of dead plants, dead animals and insects, dead microorganisms? Some say gardening is life; but growing flowers or vegetables, that give us life with the beauty and nutrients, would not be possible without decay and death. Even people who buy their potting soil in tidy plastic bags and their seeds in neat little paper packets and wear protective gloves while they work (gardeners who don't get their hands dirty, in other words) know this truth inherently. We place the seed in the soil, water it, place it in the sun, and it grows. Then it flowers or bears fruit, it develops fluff or seedpods, and it dies. It dies permanently if it is an annual, and if we're lucky some of its seeds drop into the soil nearby and produce new plants the following year. Or if it is a perennial it goes into a dormant state and bides its time until it emerges again the next year, bigger, stronger, birthing more members to its tribe.

The core principle of shamanism is to be able to touch the realm of the dead while one is still living. The nature of a vision quest is being able to glimpse the secrets of the place we will all go to at the end of our lives, secrets we only learn when we die. Why is this knowledge important? The experience of the shaman who gains this knowledge is often fraught with danger and pain: he ingests poisonous plants, or walks in dark landscapes surroudned by pitfalls, or sits for days exposing himself to the elements, or willfully starves himself. Sometimes the price is great: madness, illness, death. But it is believed one must be broken or dismembered in order to become whole. And if he comes back whole from this sacrificial dismemberment, he is, to use a word we all know, "re-membered." He gains knowledge he did not have before, at great cost to body and soul, perhaps; but if it is re-membered, does this mean he had it all along? And why, why, is this knowledge important?

I don't know. But I do know that somewhere in that rose that is not covered in pink fragrant blooms, lies the heart of a fragrant, beautiful flower.

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