Photos of the Day: Remains to Be Seen

Photos of the Day: Remains to Be Seen

A somewhat benign perspective about the dead, or being in the presence of the dead and about cemeteries, is that ” great cemetery feels like a world unto itself: a kind of theme park of the departed, where everyday life is left behind at the gate. A certain mood overtakes you when you visit. You are simultaneously overwhelmed by the sense of being surrounded by the dead, and seduced by the beauty of the place. This creates a special flavor of melancholy, the inevitable feels present and one’s own life all the more fleeting, as in Memento Mori, Remember that you are mortal.”

There is, on the other hand, a more malevolent perspective about the dead and cemeteries. This viewpoint is based upon more internal motivations, which associate death with or as the outcome of our aggressive drives. Here, ideas about the departed are permeated with a fear of the presence or of the return of the dead person’s ghost. It is a fear that the dead will return to inflict retaliation for past grievances that it holds against the living.

It is exactly this fear that leads to a great number of ceremonies aimed at keeping the ghost at a distance or driving it away. Specifically, in cemeteries the headstone is placed upon the grave to weigh it down as an attempt to prevent or block the spirit of the departed one from rising up.

Remains to Be Seen

A Short Film by: Jeff Scher

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No Time: Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

No Time: Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

No Time

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side under a smooth slab of granite.

Then, all day long, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

Billy Collins

U. S. Poet Laureate, 2001-2003

Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

During an interview focusing upon our perceptions of the dead, Collins touched upon his portrayal of death in the poem No Time:

“The underlying theme of Western poetry is mortality. The theme of carpe diem asks us to seize the day because we have only a limited number of them. To see life through the lens of death is to approach the condition of gratitude for the gift, or simply the fact, of our existence. And as Wallace Stevens said, Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers….

We visit graves because they give the illusion that the person is somewhere, in some place. But like a mandala, the gravestoneitself is a focusing device. The treatment of the dead as if they were still alive is ancient. The Egyptians would entomb you with your favorite food, flowers, even pets (poor dears). In that way, maybe we are all in some form of hopeful denial.”

No Time: Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

Animation by: Jeff Scher

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Poetry and Tragedy: “The Dead”

Poetry and Tragedy: “The Dead”

Billy Collins who served as the United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, selected by the Librarian of Congress, has been called “The nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” In the wake of 9/11, he was asked by USA TODAY to select a piece of his work that he believed had a message for those difficult times.

At that time, Collins wrote, “In the aftermath of the catastrophe of Sept. 11, which was nothing less than a psychic invasion of the United States, many people I know turned intuitively to poetry as a source of sanity and perhaps even consolation. Poetry has always accommodated loss and keening; it may be said to be the original grief counseling center. But American poets will have a hard time if they attempt a direct response to these events, because poetry by its nature moves us inward, not outward to the public and the collective.

Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, the media has tried to fill that hole, that vacuum, with talk and print, but unsuccessfully. Poetry will not fill that space either, but poetry creates its own space apart from such terrible emptiness. It’s not that poets should feel a responsibility to write about this calamity. All poetry stands in opposition to it. Pick a poem, any poem, from an anthology and you will see that it is speaking for life and therefore against the taking of it. A poem about mushrooms or about a walk with the dog is a more eloquent response to September 11th than a poem that announces that wholesale murder is a bad thing.”

Collins chose The Dead which at first appears to be a seemingly simple allegory for death. The Dead gives the first impression of being a light poem, but the poem’s final lines bridge the divide between humor and its much deeper meaning. Further, if you’ve been around long enough for someone you love to have died, you’ll appreciate its sentiment.

The Dead

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

Billy Collins

The animated short film, The Dead, is from Billy Collins’ action poetry series, which he produced for the Sundance Channel. The poetry is by Collins, with animation provided by Juan Delcan of Spontaneous.

The Dead: Action Poetry by Billy Collins

Animation by Juan Delcan

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