Monday, October 29, 2007

Hail the Victorious Dead!

With all the costumes, sweeties and general celebrations that occur at Hallowe'en now, it is easy to lose sight of its real significance. It is the Day of the Dead, a day of remembrance, even of making contact with those who have passed through the veils to the hereafter.

There is a rather moving scene in Peter Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' that occurs in the Great Hall of the kingdom of Rohan. The horse lords of Rohan are the closest to traditional ancient Anglo-Saxon society and in true Anglo-Saxon style, a cup is raised to 'The Victorious Dead!'

The 'Victorious Dead' are those in particular who gave their lives in the struggle against the enemies of Rohan but it is the invitation to the Dead to participate in the celebration that touches my heart.

In the majority of contemporary Western societies, we do not invite our dead to join us at the dining table. We do not raise a toast to them on a regular basis nor do we allow them to participate in any of our daily rituals.

It is different in some Asian societies where shrines to the beloved dead have a place of honour in homes and there is regular, even ordinary communion with the departed.

What happened to us that we fail to keep the lines of communication open between the worlds?

Part of it may be the fault of the tendency of some organised religions to focus on the 'life hereafter' to the exclusion almost of THIS life. The dead, if they have been virtuous or fortunate, go to a 'better place' when they 'shuffle off this mortal coil'. Pursuant to this attitude, it therefore would be rather wrong to try to entice them back to the nightmare of THIS world and THIS life. Who would spend time on Earth if they belonged in paradise?

Many ancient religions, however, perceived the hereafter as a sort of continuation of this world and this life. Despite certain tests or ordeals that the deceased had to pass, the life of the hereafter was believed to be rather mundane.

Many religions supported the idea of 'intercession' as well. In Asian and Western traditions alike, the deceased had power to intercede with divine powers or agents on behalf of the living. This belief obviously would encourage regular communion with the dead, both in the form of prayer and of thanksgiving.

I do not pretend to know where the dead go or what becomes of them, but I do think it is important to have some kind of remembrance of those we love who no longer walk this earth. I therefore would like to take this opportunity to mention some of my beloved dead.

My maternal grandfather, who died when I was 10 years old. He was an artist and as the eldest grandchild, I probably knew him better than most of my generation. I was shocked and slightly traumatised by his death, not only because it was my first experience of death in my own family but because of the effect it had on my mother. I saw him in an open coffin and I attended the funeral. It seemed very odd afterwards to go back to school and continue an ordinary life. In particular, having witnessed and participated in the mourning rituals and hysterical weeping in some cases of his daughters, it surprised me a little that THEY could resume the threads of their lives almost without any transition. I believe that was because I was a child, and did not quite understand how grief worked. Seeing my mother prostrated by it was very traumatic, but to see her recover almost instantly (in my limited perception, remember... I doubt she recovered in truth) was bewildering.

After the death of my grandfather, I went to Asia, where I experienced quite a lot of death firsthand. I witnessed both the death of people I knew and those I did not know. I saw animals slaughtered, watched as medical operations were performed, and watched as bodies were burned on the ghat. No death of close family or friends there, however but I was changed forever by those experiences.

My own father, who died when I was thirteen years old. This was a black hole situation for me, as I was not given a chance to see him before he died, nor to attend a funeral, nor to mourn at his grave. It was like an eclipse of the sun, and yet one that occurred at night. There was nowhere to go with it. My mother had remarried. Our lives went on, but I was truly devastated. I think I would have recovered faster if I had been able to express my grief, but it seemed almost impolite to make a fuss in a household over which another man presided.

My first real fiance, who was killed during summer holidays at University. He went 'home', although 'home' is a euphemism when one is dealing with people who are condemned to eternal exile from their true homes. He was not an active participant in the War but it was enough that he existed to make him a target.

Later, another fiance who committed suicide with a deliberate drug overdose when things became too difficult. He was too young to recognise that 'dishonour' can be less burdensome to family and friends than permanent loss. That death hit me very hard. It seemed to me that I was not worth enough to keep him on this earth. Now, I am a little wiser and more 'grounded' where my own self-worth is concerned, but at the age of eighteen, his suicide almost took me with him.

A very close friend who truly died a 'hero's death', who chose to fight rather than waiting for death to come to him. It is this friend whom I would salute in the toast: 'To the Victorious Dead!' His example gives me faith and hope when I become disillusioned with selfishness, greed and corruption among those who claim to be honourable and who claim to live for a cause.

A few years later, another close friend whose death could have been suicide but could have been due to negligence and surrender to despair. We were no longer together. His lack of emotional equilibrium and hot temper were too difficult for me to weather after a point, but after his death, a part of me wondered for a long time if I could have 'saved' him, even though I knew that only he could have saved himself if he had chosen a different path.

My best friend, some one who was about 15 years older than I, who died alone and in terrible pain a couple of years ago because he refused to let any one know that he was dying. It was his choice. He always had spoken of it as the way in which he would choose to die, at home alone rather than in hospital. Even so, this friend was the mainstay of my life in many ways, some one who acted like a guardian angel for a decade, some one on whom I could have relied in any emergency. I was shocked by his death and I felt that I should have known somehow, should have done something... There was no romantic relationship between us, but he was more like family than any one else in my life. I still have not recovered entirely.

There are many others who have died but these are the ones whose deaths never cease to resonate in my soul.

I do not expect any one to read this really, but I feel it is right to mention my own dead at this time of year. Wherever they are or are not, I would like to think that they would not find a place in my memory and heart forever.

This may be the most personal post I ever write!

1 comment:

Fleming said...

This is a beautiful piece of writing, elegantly conceived.