This weekend I checked out some books about death from the Lincoln Library, which is the public library here in Springfield. It’s a rather nice library, although not as big as the one in Urbana, Illinois. It’s aptly named, as the Lincoln house is only a block away from it, and my usual practice is to visit his home and the library every week or two. I’ve been listening to an unabridged audio book of Lincoln’s Melancholy during my drives between campus and home, and his musings on death and the tragic aspects of life seem most applicable these days, as Halloween approaches.
It’s not just Halloween and the Day of the Dead that inspired my interest in these books. A little over a month ago we lost our unborn son, who was, after all, only twelve weeks along in his growth into a person, and so by some accounts he wasn’t even yet our son or a person or human at all. But that’s not what I felt when Jeri went into labor and held him on her hand, still somewhat bloody. I know that I don’t usually think of a 12-week old fetus as being something beautiful or lovable, but when it is your own baby, and you have been excited and full of happy anticipation, the little one does touch your heart, especially the well-formed hands and feet.
Well, anyway, these books I was reading Sunday are really quite good. The first was Michael D. Bailey’s Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present. I was particularly interested in the third chapter, on the varieties of magic in the high and late middle ages. The Church, in opposing the practice of using ceremonies and rituals that would trigger an encounter experience with an entity that seemed to be a dead person, had to stress that these were not in fact the souls of the dead returned to converse with the living. After all, according to Christian theology the dead were up in heaven or down in hell or perhaps in purgatory, and they could hardly leave to appear in our reality just because someone called them. Another book I read was Reunions: Visionary encounters with departed loved ones, by Raymond Moody and Paul Perry. I own Moody’s Life After Life, which I think I inherited from my step-father’s mother when she died in 1995. Moody doesn’t come out and say that the apparitions are the dead. They could be (and probably are) projections of our subconscious minds. The interesting thing to me is that given the right preparation and the right setting he claims that in more than half of cases a subject can have an encounter experience, and these experience are always good, therapeutic, and comforting. He suggests that the experience must come as part of a day in which the subject may spend a few hours walking and sitting while remembering the dead person, and talking about their relationship to the dead person. His subjects spend considerable time looking at objects that memorialize the dead (articles of their clothing, photographs, and so forth) while recalling all sorts of memories. After the preparation, the subjects sit in a comfortable chair, and look at a giant mirror on a wall, mounted in such a way that they can not see their own reflection in the mirror. This takes place in a room with only a 15-watt bulb for illumination, and a dark curtain and other props are used to block out light and sound and any other distracting things that would reflect in the mirror.
The most interesting book of the three I read was The Buried Soul: How humans invented death. This 2002 book is by Timothy Taylor. I found the book very compelling. He describes and discusses in detail some of the earliest graves or burial sites of human and proto-human history and prehistory. There is discussion of the continuing practice of ritual child sacrifice, a great deal about cannibalism, and a very touching discussion of Ibn Fadlan’s account of the pagan ship burial of a Rus chieftan. I like Taylor’s rejection of moral relativism when he describes the rape and brutal murder of the slave girl who volunteered to accompany the Rus (Viking) chief into the after-world, or the torture and massacre of children whose tears were collected to satisfy the Aztec rain god Tlaloc, or the sadistic ritualized killing of children for muti, ritualized objects used as charms by some southern Africans. I remember a Botswanan classmate of mine in graduate school who was very concerned about the practice of wealthy businessmen hiring witch doctors (sangomas) to procure young girls for human sacrifice to help their businesses prosper, but I hadn’t thought much about muti since.
Anyway, these were good books, especially Taylor’s book. I recommend them.