9. I take the bow from the hand of the dead man, to be our supremacy and glory and power, and I say, “You are there; we are here. Let us as great heroes conquer all envious attacks.”
10. Creep away to this broad, vast earth, the mother that is kind and gentle. She is a young girl, soft as wool to anyone who makes offerings, let her guard you from the lap of Destruction.
11. Open up, earth, do not crush him. Be easy for him to enter and burrow in. Earth, wrap him up as a mother wraps a son in the edge of her skirt.
12. Let the earth as she opens up stay firm, for a thousand pillars must be set up. Let them be houses dripping with butter for him, and let them be a refuge for him here for all his days.
13. I shore up the earth all around you; let me not injure you as I lay down this clod of earth. Let the fathers hold up this pillar for you; let Yama build a house for you here.
14. On a day that will come they will lay me in the earth, like the feather of an arrow.
I, my wife, my daughter and everyone reading this have one thing in common: we are all terminally ill.
The bones which give us structure grow brittle with time. The DNA which carries our molecular blueprints and instruction manuals wears down. We are complex systems in a universe tending toward entropy. Sooner or later those systems become incapable of sustaining themselves: decay sets in and our elements return to whence they came. We may avoid accidents, but sooner or later we will keep our appointments with Death. It has always been this way. It will always be this way.
Death haunted our ancestors like it haunts us, and they had less opportunity to shield themselves from its presence. They heard their supper’s gurgling screams on the butcher’s block: they prepared their loved ones’ corpses for disposal in fire, water, earth or air. 430,000 years ago our protohuman ancestors disposed of their dearly departed in sacred places. Nor are animals of the genus Homo alone in honoring their dead. Funeral rituals can be found among crows, elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees: ants take their dead outside the nest and stack them in neat, evenly spaced piles.
And behold, thou shalt make offerings of cakes and ale to these gods, and shalt burn incense on their fires. Every Spirit-soul for whom these things shall be done shall become like a holy god in Khert-Neter, and he shall not be turned back at any gate in Amentet, and he shall be in the following of Osiris, whithersoever he goeth, regularly and continually.
While the specific definitions varied considerably, most of our ancestors spoke of Death’s realm as a grey and numb place where spirits wandered seeking food, water and sensation. If the dead were not given proper respects they might wreak vengeance on those who neglected them. Angry and malevolent ghosts can be found across eras, regions and cultures. The dead became dangerous when they transgressed their boundaries and intruded upon the world of the living. But in their proper place — amongst their families and their communities — the dead could bring blessings.
Heroes who had performed great deeds might continue as defied ancestral Gods or spirits who guarded the family and the tribe. Those who had lived quieter lives might still protect and guide their descendents. While the modern world focuses on the individual’s needs and wants, our ancestors saw themselves as part of an ongoing process that would continue through the generations, part of an eternal drama wherein past, present and future played itself out in an endless Now. (A worldview which we are only now beginning to realize may be more true than we supposed).
Even the unborn could play a part in this ongoing play. In Mexico the spirits of miscarried infants watch over their family as angelitos: in Japan the miscarried child is called a mizuko, a “water child” whose soul never flowed completely into our world. Our clear-cut definitions of “life” and “death” owe more to our convenience and our preconceptions than to reality. As is often the case, what at first appears simple is really far more complicated than we supposed.
When your Mother
Comes through the door
With the glow of a candle,
It seems to me as if,
As always, you came in with her,
Scurrying around behind her,
As ever, into the room.
O you, little bit of your father,
Ah, too quickly
Extinguished light of happiness!
In August 2009 we discovered Kathy was pregnant: two weeks later we lost our child. On November 28, 2011 we welcomed Annamaria Sigyn Estelle Filan into our world. Soon after she started talking Annamaria began to speak of her sister: in March 2015, on the anniversary of a delivery that never happened, she announced “Today is my sister’s birthday.” Since then they continue to communicate across the void between what is and what might have been. Recently our daughter gave us a drawing of the sister she never knew, that she could never have known: it rests in a place of honor on our ancestor table. We have neither encouraged nor discouraged Annamaria in this. It is our duty to raise her and guide her, not to reshape her direct experience so that it may better fit our generation’s ignorance.
Some — most, perhaps — would dismiss this as a little girl talking to her imaginary friend. I cannot prove them wrong: even Socrates could not ascertain exactly what was coming after he drank the hemlock. I am a person living with mental illness and the voices I hear may be nothing more than my crumbling ego trying desperately to hold its fragments together. I am all too well aware of the limits of human perception and human reason: I know all this as surely as I have known love and grief. But I also know that there are Mysteries, and that sometimes a child can grasp that which leaves the wisest among us baffled.