Ceremonies of Death

My mother is in the hospital with what can best be described as organ failure. There is a fancy name for it but the end result is the same. Her digestive system has shutdown. Of all the systems in the body to shutdown this has got to be the worst or one of the worst. If your heart, brain, or lungs stop working then you barely even have time to realize what is happening before it is over, but this. This is going to be long and drawn out unless the digestive system comes back online.

I visited my mother in the hospital twice so far, and I am not sure which time was worse or what is even worse is that she could read this or my family will read this and see me talking this way. The first time my mother was unresponsive and hardly what you could call coherent. The second time she was wide awake and more lucid than I had seen her in years, and both times her insides were simply not working. The difference is the doctors have been treating her symptoms. Due to the blockage caused by her digestive system not working she developed sepsis which is blood poisoning. They gave her a blood transfusion to clean out the blood and hopefully create an environment to promote healing.

The first day I went to the hospital, the day she was unconscious and looked like a fish trapped on land, I was struck by how ordinary everything was. She wasn’t in the ICU or a special wing of the hospital. She was just in a normal hospital room. Not unlike the hospital room my wife had been in five months prior when our daughter was born. There was no ceremony then and there was none now. The two most momentous occasions of our lives. Our entrance into the world and our exit. And they happen surrounded by cold cinderblock and linoleum.

Whenever I think of death I think of the Romantic Era poet John Keats, a man who had an intimate relationship with death. They say tuberculosis will do that. It gives a person time to ruminate on all they’ve done and all they’re going to miss out on. Especially if they are in their early 20’s like Keats.

Ode on a Grecian Urn is one of Keats more famous works and while it is best known for its last two lines and its relationship with Keats and death isn’t talked as much about as Nightingale it is there from the very object of the poem to one of the scenes it describes. The scene of a sacrifice with a, “heifer lowing at the skies,” and a village emptied of its people who, “can e’er return.” It is a scene depicting death carved on an object meant to store the burned remains of the deceased, but it is a ceremony far from Keats world.

Keats was a Romantic Era poet. Much as Existentialism later was a response to the Age of Reason. Romanticism was a response to the Enlightenment. Here Keats is looking on a Grecian Urn, an urn from a culture valued by the Enlightenment era thinkers for its logic, reason, mathematics, architecture, and philosophy but likewise valued by the Romantics for its mysticism, heroes, legends, and dramas. Think of Shelley’s Ozymandias. The statue is long fallen over and reclaimed by the desert, but the legend remains.

In Ode on a Grecian Urn what is important here is the depiction of a ritual of death on an object of death. A sacrifice to some unknown god to fulfil some unknown need. It is not logical or reasonable or grounded in science or anything else Enlightenment thinkers would value. It is a ritual full of meaning only through the act of ritual itself.

Now back to our current lives and where death fits in our culture. Death is all around us. We can’t turn on the news or log into our social media account without being inundated with death. We can’t even drive down the highway without a reminder when we see that the flag remains at half-staff and we have no idea when it will rise again. I feels like every day there is either a mass shooting or a POC gunned down by an officer of the peace. I was accused by an online troll with a fake account of being emotional and illogical and I want no part of a logic that deems it acceptable for an officer of the peace to shoot a 13 year old child. Perhaps I am merely a Romantic or Existentialists or I am a person with a spiritual upbringing in a religion of peace that taught to love your neighbor, do good work, and beat swords into plowshares.

It could be anyone of those things, but I am also a person that mourns the loss of ceremony, folklore, and magic in a world grown cold. Seeing my mother lying there in just another hospital room, in just another hospital, made me wonder if perhaps we had more ceremony around death if we would respect it more and therefore value life more and if we did would the last year have gone the way it did?

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