Of Corpses and Death: This Essay isn’t meant to be Intelligible
Twice, in the same living room — 8 years apart, I stared through the glass of a coffin at the lifeless bodies of first my mother and then my father. Dead bodies, including those of deeply cherished loved ones are unresponsive, polished as they might seem after having been so grimly and impersonally prepared for burial. I was too young to be involved in the death certification processes — the administrative and bureaucratic as well as cultural procedures — which confirm the permanent inanimation of a once personable body replete with infectious traits of humor, laughter, warmth, all derived from the capacity to feel back and to reciprocate — of my mother.
But much older, in my second year of college, I walked to the Zomba Central Hospital mortuary to obtain the notice of death, or the death certificate, of my father. It was handed to me without difficulty on what seemed like an A-5 paper by a tired man in a doctor’s coat (he didn’t have a stethoscope perhaps because heartbeats are of the living, being that he dealt with the dead).
All the thousands of moments I had enjoyed with this man to whom I owed my very existence were now summarized on a piece of paper no more than 100 words in length. He, in his living form, was gone, and so he no longer had use for words, so why waste precious ink for eyes that no longer see and ears that no longer hear. Words and the feelings they elicit are for the living. The dead hear no words; see nothing and feel nothing.
They do not hear wailing; all that anguish which exists just beyond the frontiers of our languages signaling deep visceral pain which can never be conveyed to the sudden unfeeling corpse of a loved one, mute, stiff and expressionless before you; confined in a box, underneath a sheet of glass, in a claustrophobic space probably without much air (the dead have no use for air: it only hastens their decomposition, not that they care).
With the casket closed, and under the ground, the claustrophobic space is then without light. But the dead, as is the solemn state of their reticent feelings, are fearless. They are buried without fear, and are left in the ground, abandoned forever without so much as a quiver. The dead have no use for emotions, for air, for light or even us — and what we say.
Scattered like an ash, or history that’s past
Came from nowhere, disappear just as fast
A life out of balance, a touch out of grasp
A timetraveler headed to a night catches us
The final stop on the line for all passengers
(Tariq Trotter 2014, The Unraveling)
But if the dead are impersonal, unfeeling, and unafraid and especially have no use for the living, then the world is utterly populated by dead persons of human corpses amongst other dead things. An impersonal world is merely a world in which living human beings are impersonal towards you, and are unmoved by your wailing and crying; by your pain. They all exist on the other side of the same sheet of glass that demarcates between dead loved ones and living loved ones in a coffin. They do not love you — or perhaps you do not love them, and so you are nothing to each other. We are as unfeeling to each other as corpses being stared at through glass before those who weep for our attention finally resolve to bury us. Before they too scamper off to become dead (unfeeling) to others.
Since my parents died, I have become ready to bury the dead. Deluded by religion, I clung on to the entirely false expectation that my mother would be returned to us, if I prayed and believed hard enough. I was twelve — and believed the claims of my then religion too closely; I hadn’t yet come to realize that the gods worked in mysterious ways which meant they neither answered prayers nor lived up to their claims. And so my mother never came back from grave (and I was certain, without delusions, that neither would dad having learned the mysteries of the gods by then).
But I am always ready to bury. To bury corpses of relationships, corpses of etiquette, corpses of protocol and a litany of other corpses of things when they neither feel nor avail themselves to honest and sincere expressions of suffering. Everything is transitive and ephemeral, it could all die any moment, largely beyond any of my very modest means to intervene, and irrespective of the suffering it might unleash upon myself and other potential wailers. And sometimes, some people and some things are only half-dead: so I half-bury them, even as I stand ready to be half-buried myself.
This also means that I am quite prepared to live a complete life, should I not soon be turned into an unfeeling corpse myself and thrown away into a lonely hole in the earth somewhere, both literally and figuratively, of never having any of my needs (emotional, intellectual, physical, social, economic, sexual, political, etc.) met. Because of this, I feel that these needs too are corpses masquerading as living expectations, nourished by phantom or fictitious heartbeats and blood.
So I have for the most part no expectations — but when I do and allow myself to feel frustrated, I know that regret and frustration is temporary. It will not matter in the least when I am dead, when those who would have allowed themselves to love me confront their turn to cry for an unfeeling heap, tidied up temporarily in a soon to be buried, dark box. If the excruciating cries of a child will not re-invigorate a parent’s corpse back to life, what chance shall relentless frustration and inevitable regret have at bringing my corpse back to life.
To be sure that my erasure from this planet is permanent, in so far as destroying the metaphor of a potentially redeemable body (not so) which could be resurrected from a grave by some spectacular incident, I will have my good organs donated and the rest of me cremated: bigger pieces of me scattered among the still living, and the smaller fragments scattered to the winds in ash and soot.
Pray about that. Cry about that. Try force some feeling into a dissipated corpse with organs in other bodies and debris in the dust, water and wind. Try awaken a progeny-corpse much deader than its already dead parents. Try bringing that [whole] mess back to life!!!
I am a thinking corpse-in-waiting; and I know it. And in the meantime, I have unfeeling corpses to bury: pain is wasted on the dead.
Even as I struggle with the pangs of death during the last moments of my life, it might still be the happiest day in all of my life next to when I naively and innocently accepted the feeling of love — because even as I struggle to keep living, deep down I will know that it will soon be over, for good. What a feeling!