“The Dead Stay Dead”

In his book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, Joseph Roach titles a chapter “Echoes in the Bone.” Roach himself acknowledges the title as a nod to a play by Jamaican playwright Dennis Scott entitled An Echo in the Bone. The allusion is fitting for the chapter in Roach’s book that deals primarily with remembering, forgetting, and the deceased, as Scott’s play is centered around a Nine-Night Ceremony. The Nine-Night Ceremony, according to Roach, “welcomes the spirit of a deceased person back into his or her home on the ninth night after death has occurred.” It is a ceremony that engages in the wider, cross-cultural discourse on the remembering and forgetting of the dead.

Out of curiosity (and admitted desperation for blog content) I obtained a copy of Dennis Scott’s An Echo in the Bone and read the first act. Throughout the play, one sees rather explicitly the themes that Roach explores in Cities of the Dead. Most notably, I was struck by a section of dialogue in which Rachel, the mourning widow of the play’s sacrificial lamb, discusses the Nine-Night Ceremony with her daughter-in-law, Brigit. Brigit asks Rachel, in reference to the ceremony, “Ma, what you doing this for? Why don’t you make the dead stay dead?” Rachel responds, “And I am to forget him too? Is my man, I going satisfy his ghost with whatever respect I have.” The two characters take juxtaposing stances on the proper treatment of the dead: Brigit thinks it is best to leave the past behind and forget, while Rachel calls for a continuing remembrance, in this case in the form of a seance.

This choice, to remember or to forget, concerning the dead is omnipresent in society. In preparation for writing, I also read an article (available here) about above ground caskets of New Orleans and their tendency to float away in the severe flooding of 2016, and previously in Hurricane Katrina as well. These incidents provide a figurative demonstration of the idea in An Echo in the Bone that the dead will not “stay dead.” In the article, Zeb Johnson, a retired investigator for the New Orleans Coroner’s Office, was interviewed about the city’s quick response to round up the caskets. In his interview, Johnson used used a quote from English philosopher William Gladstone: “Show me the way a community cares for its dead and I will plot with mathematical exactness the morals of that community.” The phrase “cares for its dead” seemed strange to me, as did Gladstone’s certainty that their was a correlation between funerary practices and morals (the latter I may discuss in a future post).  

Care, at least in my mind, usually denotes the treatment of a living thing. Even when it is used in the context of the keeping of an inanimate object, such as a car or a musical instrument, that object is assigned some level of personification in order to warrant the act of care. A musician’s personal violin, which may be cared for, is treated much different than a random instrument with no cultivated memories attached. A thing that is completely without life or personality of some sort is not worthy of care. By extension, saying that one can “care for the dead” may give some element of life back to the deceased. To borrow course terms, this is a conscription of the dead into a performance of living. When cared for, the deceased person stays dead but is assigned qualities, such as a need for comfort, that are usually confined to the living.

“Caring for the dead,” is seen in An Echo in the Bone in Rachel’s approach to dealing with loss. After her husband’s death, Rachel feels as though she owes him. Her spiritual beliefs necessitate the treatment of the deceased as still living, since in vodun tradition spirits remain behind after the point of bodily expiration. The Nine-Night Ceremony she wishes to perform is meant to honor her husband and treat him with respect; it is her wish because she thinks it is his as well. In contrast, Brigit does not acknowledge a need to care for the dead, at least not the extent that Rachel does. She dismisses the need to appease the dead. For her, this results from a fear of what repercussions there may be from literally bringing back the dead. For others, a reluctance to honor the dead may come from a lack of belief in the afterlife altogether. Despite these differing reasons, the effect is the same: individuals refute the assumption that the deceased should be catered to as though they are still living. I don’t think this position necessarily condemns funeral services or proper burials out of tradition, rather it is simply critical of the view that the deceased are “owed.” The two approaches can coexist in a society, perhaps only coming into conflict at critical junctures such as the one seen in Scott’s play.


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