Monday, September 2, 2013

Traveling to the Land of the Dead

During spring break of 2011, the Artists and Their Regions course travelled to cemeteries in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.  We had read Maria Theresa Hernández’s book Cemeteries of Ambivalent Desire, which focuses on a cemetery named San Isidro in Sugarland.  Professor Hernández came into our class and talked about the ethnic Mexicans, prisoners and slaves buried there.  She explained how difficult it was to enter because after years of development in Sugarland, the cemetery was now inside a sprawling subdivision.  When we drove there, it did prove impossible to get inside as the gate was locked and no one was around to let us in.  It’s not always so easy to travel to the underworld.

My grandparents are buried in White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan.  My mother’s parents in the ground, the ashes of my father’s parents rest in a mausoleum.  My parents are buried together in Harbor Springs, Michigan.  Five hours separate Troy and Harbor Springs, and I don’t always visit both burial sites when I return to the state.  My older children live in St. Clair Shores, also in Michigan, and sometimes they accompany me to the graves.  I haven’t been to White Chapel in years, this fall I’ll travel north and lay flowers at my parent’s headstone.

I’m always very moved when I read Gilgamesh’s pain at the loss of his friend Enkidu, in Herbert Mason’s version of the myth.  “He was no more a king / But just a man who now had lost his way” (54).  It’s a story that echoes through many cultures and across the millennia.  Odysseus travels to the underworld to find his way home, and unexpectedly meets his mother who he tries to embrace but cannot. 
Aeneas and the Sybil in the Underworld
Jan Breughel the Younger, 1630s
oil on copper
Aeneas finds his father in the land of the dead and also tries to touch him.  Orpheus journeys to Hades to bring back his wife who recently died from a snake bite.  His skills with voice and music win him his bride back from Pluto and Proserpina, but with a condition: he must not look back at her as he walks toward the light.  Of course, you know what happens.  Proserpina, also known as Persephone, has her own story where as a young girl she is abducted by Pluto, King of the Underworld, and taken down into darkness.  Her mother Demeter, distraught at her daughter’s disappearance, walks the earth looking for her.  Crops die, animals and humans wither as the mother of all that grows turns angrily upon the world until she receives news that Persephone is underground and may return if she has not eaten the fruit of that dark place.  Of course, you know what happens.

There are many more stories of the living travelling to the land of the dead.  It may be the most necessary and unavoidable ticket we purchase in our lifetime.  Gilgamesh yearns to talk to Utnapishtim, “the one who had survived the flood / And death itself, the one who knew the secret” (55).  When I fly into Pellston Airport, drive to Lakeview cemetery, besides marigolds, my mother’s favorite flowers, I’ll also bring news of our family, news of their grandchildren who miss them.  And, as always, I’ll pause and listen, believing for a moment I can hear them talk to me from the land of the dead, whispering all the secrets they know.
--John Harvey

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