We do not tolerate nonexistence. It is a question of place. To exist, something must be somewhere. Originally, “exist” means to be placed. Most of the time we exist in our body. This is comforting.
Death mangles this comfort. If we are in a body and that body folds or collapses or ceases, where do we go?1
Charles Dickens is buried in Westminster Abbey. I’ve stood over his stone, given him an earful about his female characters. Something of him is down there. Thomas Hardy is there, partly. His stone is next to Dickens’.
However, only his body is there—his heart is in Dorset. Where does Hardy exist?
We do not tolerate nonexistence. We even carry the load of bearing witness so things that are no longer can still exist, in some way.
When C.S. Lewis lost the love of his life, “H.,” he suffered deep sorrow not knowing where she was. He writes in A Grief Observed:
Where is she now? That is, in what place is she at the present time? But if H. is not a body—and the body I loved is certainly no longer she—she is in no place at all.
Lewis, a devout Christian, was not appeased by his faith’s post-death assurances. He needed an H. to exist empirically. To be placed.
Faced with the voids of nonexistence, we, the living, exact certainties. Certainties like stones, graves, internment, prayers, moments of silence and flowers for companionship. We shout to the universe: “Look, I exist, I do these things empirically! You may have Dickens, but you don’t have me!”
Near our home in England, there is an old stone church, an old stone graveyard, and an old stone entitled (can I use that word?) “Ellen.”
Ellen existed empirically a century ago; now, her body is buried with her family. I visit Ellen often (we are simpatico, that she spent a life turning her head at the same word I do). I approach her stone, give a spry wave, announce my existence.
Last winter was horribly cold, and one night I visited Ellen. Something in me worried she was cold, too. Wait. Is a person underground? What is she doing under there? Was she trapped in the casket? Was she trapped in her body? Was she cold? I returned home, shivering.
I didn’t visit her for a while, and she slipped from my thoughts until recently. I was reading Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, a wonderful book on the hollow post-death absence. A family loses a mother and is visited, besieged rather, by a large testy, maternal crow. It would have to be a crow, wouldn’t it? To fill the hole left by a mother? The crow fixates on the family and acts as a sort of Mary Poppins “I’ll stay until the wind changes” guardian who plugs the lack of “mom.”
I considered Ellen. And felt sorrow.
We buried my grandfather this month. Interred him. (Can I say that? Can I say he was in-terrified?) I am interrified without him.
I suppose he exists in Michigan. And in my memory, so deep in memory I forget he’s in Michigan. That will change. Grandpa existed fully to my dad, to me less, to my daughter even less, to such an extent that she will have only her version of my memories. Her children, merely their version of her version of my memories of a man that once existed.
The more abstract truth becomes, the more we return to things we can touch and feel and see. Like gravestones, plots of earth, photos.
But, do these things give us comfort?
I remember being rather horrified one summer morning long ago when a burly, cheerful labouring man, carrying a hoe and a watering pot, came into our churchyard, and as he pulled into the gate behind him, shouted over his shoulder to two friends, ‘See you later, I’m just going to visit Mum.’ He meant he was going to weed and water and generally tidy up her grave. It horrified me because this mode of sentiment, all this churchyard stuff, was and is simply hateful, even inconceivable, to me. But in light of my recent thoughts I am beginning to wonder whether, if one could take that man’s line (I can’t), there isn’t a good deal to be said for it. A six-by-three-foot flower-bed had become Mum. That was his symbol for her, his link with her. Caring for it was visiting her.
We left popcorn and donuts in Grandpa’s grave, in case he gets peckish. He won’t eat it, but it was an act of caring, of connection.
Jorge Luis Borges said death means we stop being. Maybe he was right, maybe death is the exact moment of nonexistence. Maybe that is why we fear it so. Or maybe we cease to exist when no memory of a memory of a memory of us remains. When there is no more sorrow.
From Wendell Berry’s poem “The Meadow”:
In the town’s graveyard the oldest plot now frees itself
of sorrow, the myrtle of the graves grown wild. The last
who knew the faces who had these names are dead,
and now the names fade, dumb on the
Would that be so bad? To not exist, to be utterly forgotten, and to have no one suffer my absence? I do not long for death, but once dead, I long to fade quickly from memory and sorrow. To the place where strangers visit my stone, wondering “Who was this Ellen?” and then turn home, calmed.