When I die please bury me
In a high-top Stetson hat,
Put a 20-dollar gold piece on my watch-chain
So the boys will know I died standing pat.
‘Saint James Infirmary’
A few years ago I was looking at a group of paintings by Poussin in which Death dances to a stately tune, though always with Panic as part of the line-up, and began to realise that the basic beat of the tune – the paintings’ processional language, and even the wildness upsetting the funeral – was borrowed from reliefs of Meleager, Endymion, the Niobids and the rest that Romans had chosen for the sides of their stone coffins. I was in Rome at the time, and the coffins were everywhere. So I found myself standing on the stairs of the Palazzo Mattei, trying to imagine the sensibility behind the solid collision of Mars and Rhea Silvia, and leafing endlessly through the four volumes of Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs devoted to Dionysos. It was a strange world, and in it I thought I might find the clue to Poussin’s paganism. Later on, ways led out to the wider world of death. Things rescued from the Han grave pits – coffins of stone or wood, carved or painted; funeral banners; ritual objects; murdered wives and concubines – seemed a reasonable point of comparison.[*] Perhaps they would sharpen my sense of what was special to the Romans’ last rites. And somewhere behind the exercise, I now see, was the hope that if I immersed myself deeply enough in the universe of tombstones I would discover that death in faraway places, back at the turn of the world, had been different. That is always the hope.
I came to the subject of ancient sarcophagi, then, as an outsider – much as Poussin did. But a question immediately follows. In what sense did I come to the subject of death, and death’s figuration, as an outsider? The question is anthropological. Is death something that any human animal relates to as an outsider? Or is one defining characteristic of the species precisely a being inside death, or on terms with it, or in intimacy with it; an intimacy that allows it to be represented, and therefore passed into and passed through?
Here are two quotations. The first I encountered in a paper on Han sarcophagi by Wu Hung, and is drawn from Mr Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals, completed in 239 BCE but representing a wisdom from a much more distant past. (Lü Buwei was chancellor in the years before China’s first emperor acceded to the throne. His Annals were produced by scholars summoned to the capital, charged with recording the best of philosophy thus far.)
Burying means hiding away; and that hiding [of the corpse] is from a wish that men should not see it. Hence there are the clothes sufficient for embellishing the body; the coffins all round the clothes [sometimes several, nested one inside the other]; the casket all round the coffins; the earth all round the casket; and a mound further raised over that grave with trees planted on it.
The second is from the Egyptologist Jan Assmann, at the start of his book Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt (2005):
The thesis that underlies this study can be reduced to an extremely simple formula: death is the origin and the centre of culture … When it comes to the importance of death, Egypt is admittedly an extreme example. But this has largely to do with the fact that we view ancient Egypt from the standpoint of a culture that is equally extreme, but in the opposite direction. From the point of view of comparative anthropology, it is we, not the ancient Egyptians, who are the exception. Few cultures in this world exclude death and the dead from their reality as radically as we do. Living with the dead and with death is one of the most normal manifestations of human culture, and it presumably lies at the heart of the stuff of human existence.
Assmann’s judgment on our culture – its being essentially death-denying – is a topos. It crops up everywhere in the literature. The title of Paul Zanker and Björn Christian Ewald’s tremendous book on the Roman material – Mit Mythen leben (2004) – has the challenge to the present built into it, since ‘living with myth’ on the tomb reliefs, they believe, was above all a way for mourners to go on living with death and the corpse. They came back to the coffin at times of festival through the years. They drank and celebrated. The dying Adonis kept death alive for them. From time to time a great stone lid was levered open and a new family member inserted. Grief and pomp were intertwined.
Maybe the idea that death is no longer present among us in anything like this way is one marker (among various linked negatives) of modernity arriving. I would bet that historians could turn up much the same bill of attainder issued by humanists in 15th-century Burgundy or clerics in 17th-century Amsterdam. But the anthropological question remains. Is Assmann right that ‘living with the dead and with death is one of the most normal manifestations of human culture, and … lies at the heart of the stuff of human existence’? I want to answer yes and no. Death, after all, as Lü’s book reminds us, has always presented life with a problem. In simple evolutionary terms, it is dangerous. It smells. It rots. It spreads disease. It is repellent. The human animal draws back from it and wants it sealed off and hidden.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
You are not logged in
[*] My work here owes much to two recent conferences, Flesh Eaters: An International Symposium on Roman Sarcophagi, organised by Chris Hallett at UC Berkeley, and The Sarcophagus East and West, chaired by Jas Elsner and Wu Hung at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Unless otherwise indicated references are to papers delivered at the conferences.