Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Rites of passage

I have always been morbid. But morbidity has probably saved my sanity. It's been just over seven months since the death of my mother but the intensity of emotion the bubbles over at the strangest times still catches me off guard. The garden has been a tremendous source of healing and this was a new experience.

Death was a shock but the loss of a parent is the normal course of life, so why the prolonged grief?

When I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year, I was surprised at the amount of death rituals that I saw on display. The Egyptians excelled in this area and the beauty and form of the celebration of death was of great comfort to me. I am not being terribly eloquent- so will try and summarize-

I needed the ritual to help me accpet the natural passage of death. And obviously I was not inventing the wheel here- it is impossible to fly in the face of death- so the way to deal with it is to ritualize it-
My mother and I talked a lot about birth, especially when it was my turn, death, plants, recipes and all the other things that make for the cement of emotional ties- but I was deeply shocked by the actual physical-ness of it when it happened.
When my grandmother died, she died in bed at home struggling to articulate an urgent message. The story of a thousand B movies but very real in my house. It was a Carnival weekend and everthing moved at such breakneck speed that she was buried the next day, a Saturday. In the confusion, I kept dreaming repeatedly, about her attempting to come back into the house and me having to say to her- go back, it's over - you are dead- her retort to me- you buried me without my shoes- where are they? Questions to my mother were useless- she was having her own drama with my agitated recently deceased grandmother- she kept having dreams of early morning phone calls- my mother saying to her- You are dead, you can't keep calling me. We had masses said, we looked for the shoes and we moved on.
All this came back to me while walking through the Met. Death is not something to be dealt with lightly. It's what makes us human. For us left behind, they live in us and we honour them in living the lives that they helped build. In my case, they live in my garden.
The excerpt below is taken directly from the Met and helped me tremendously.
Lest I seem too maudlin tonight, on the contrary, I am now coming out on the other side

The art and religion of the Asmat people of Southwest New Guinea centres primarily on the spirits of the recently dead. Nearly all Asmat groups celebrate, or celebrated, the mask feast, a series of festivals culminating when the dead, personified by performers wearing full length body masks return to visit the community.
The rites involve two types of masks. The first, a single conical mask depicting a legendary orphan appears as a comical prelude. The second type of mask seen here portrays the dead. Each mask of this type is named for a specific individual. At the climax of the ceremony, the masked performers representing the dead emerge from the forest and tour the village where they are offered food and hospitality. They eventually arrive in the front of the men’s ceremonial house where the dead and the living join in a ceremonial dance which goes long into the night. The following morning, the dead now properly fed and entertained or frightened by threats of violence, depart for safan, the realm of the ancestors