Danse Macabre

February 24, 2009 | No Comments

I wonder what Thomas Lynch would make of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book? I suspect he might enjoy it. Both the author of the essay collection, The Undertaking (1998), and this year’s Newberry Medal Winner have a sympathetic and humorous touch with the dead and understand that its often the living who scare us out of our wits. Gaiman’s novel for children (ten or over) derives its inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book; instead of an orphan raised in the wild, little Nobody (Bod) Owens is adopted and protected by the ghosts of his local graveyard, including a temperate vampire and a mischievous witch, following the murder of his family by a gang of villains. The villains, a sort of corporate masonic bunch, float in the gloaming between the living and the dead – their goals are indistinct but their evil is palpable. Gaiman’s episodic charmer is anchored by a couple of tremendous set pieces: a ghoulish chase through a blood-red purgatory, and the night of the “Macabray,” when the living fill the streets to dance with the dead. 

Thomas Lynch, the undertaker of the small town of Milford, Michigan, believes we have forgotten how to dance with the dead, forgotten how to embrace them as a necessary part of life, and we push them away through fear and loathing, so obsessed have we become with youth and the “now-ness” of things. “To ignore our mortality” this poet and essayist writes, “creates an imbalance, a kind of spiritual irregularity, psychic impaction, a bunging up of our humanity.” His twelve essays in The Undertaking are a tender, funny, dry, often metaphysical contemplation of the contemporary schizophrenia regarding death and all its surrounding paraphernalia, including the selection of coffins, the disposal or otherwise of ashes, and our extreme unwillingness to engage in the danse macabre, as though we feared that death itself were contagious – which of course it is, but, bummer, we contracted this contagion the moment we were born. The rituals of death, he stresses, are not performed for the deceased, “they don’t care,” they are performed for the living. “Is it kindness or wisdom, honor or self-interest?” he asks, about our need to memorialize and celebrate those who have passed. No, “we remember because we want to be remembered.” I think he and I would have a feisty-fisticuffs argument about his essay “Uncle Eddie, Inc” and his comments regarding birth control and abortion rights, but his opening salvo, “The Undertaking” is a eerily timely and wise summation of Western society’s cultural and technological ‘advancements’ and its childish immaturity: “Wary of being caught unawares, we planned our parenthood, committed to trial marriages with pre-nuptials, and pre-arranged our parents funerals – convinced we could pre-feel the feelings that we have heard attend new life, true love and death….faithless and hopeless (we) make babies for the sake of company…suffer from a deficiency in meaning acquired from pop culture, pop psychology, feel-good religion that tells (us) don’t worry, be happy, take care of yourself and your self-esteem. (We) stand to inherit, along with the spiritual void (our) parents left (us), the bill from the card it was all charged to.” We have forgotten, says Lynch, how to dance.

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