I recently found myself at a little shop in north Berkeley pondering a drawerful of worn beaver incisors and a jar of coyote ulnas. The latter, I read, were discounted at three dollars each for purchases of one hundred or more. This seems a bit steep, but I don’t pretend to have a handle on the ulna market. Before leaving the store – a natural history museum cum wunderkammer supply outlet – it somehow became necessary for me to buy a splendid black springbok horn. It rests now on a shelf of my bookcase next to volumes by Borges, Calvino and W.G. Sebald.
For a bit more money I could have left with something quite different. Moving from the front of the shop to the back I pressed by flocks of pinned insects and Lucite-encased birds and amphibians. I glanced with alarm at buckets of antique doll parts and a gallery of detached alligator heads. I stopped short, however, when I saw, suspended from a wooden beam by bolts drilled into their skulls, three “fully articulated” human skeletons. Not casts, mind, but actual human skeletons.
On the avenue outside on that particular summer’s day I could have counted any number of young women dressed in less than adequate clothing, but it’s a rare thing to see anyone so terribly naked as these three were. It need not be so rare. There’s no lack of people about and every one of them is capable of producing a skeleton that might, one way or another, get left lying around. War or famine could supply the dearth, I suppose, but in the regular order of things we don’t meet dead persons. Not in the suburbs anyway.
If I hadn’t felt so queer just then I might have liked to ask the proprietor some questions. I would have asked him, for instance, if the resurrectionist’s trade was really still thriving (so to speak) lo this many years after Jerry Cruncher’s heyday? And how does one legitimately come by skeletons anyway? And were these produced domestically or were they imported? For any hope of an answer, I might have posed some questions to the bones too: “Tell me, was it a lifelong ambition of yours to make a career as a memento mori? And on the day you signed your corporal donation papers, did you ever imagine your ivories going for retail at prices like these?”
However chummy you may be in theory with the idea of mortality (even your own), a practical encounter with an actual dead person can still rattle. If you were ever tempted for a moment on a nice Saturday afternoon to doubt the facts of the matter, here are the eloquent bones to set you straight. Bones which formerly belonged to formerly living persons who formerly walked around and jabbered and sulked and wondered at things in the same (or roughly the same) manner you do now. Bones just like the ones you’ve never got a good look at but always suspected of playing hide-and-seek beneath your own flesh and muscle and fat. What these bones are saying, friend, is that you are going to die. And if it becomes really necessary then I guess I will too.
Vacationing at the coast this past week, I spent my mornings with a cup of tea and a hardback copy of A Sentimental Journey, Laurence Sterne’s brief, grateful prayer to pleasure and the path of least resistance. In the biographical note at the end I learned that Sterne died a month after publishing the book and that his body was dug up a day or two later and sold to a professor of anatomy. This anatomist, the story goes, knew Sterne personally and was half-way through dissecting the corpse when he finally recognized his old pal and blushingly returned him to the churchyard.
Sterne narrated A Sentimental Journey in the character of Tristram Shandy’s Reverend Yorick – supposed descendent of Prince Hamlet’s reticent conversation partner. He might have liked the irony of his disinterment. An even more Yorickian fate was famously endured by Thomas Browne, whose skull made an eighty-year tour of the Victorian and Edwardian eras after it was removed from his tomb for no very good reason in 1840. W.G. Sebald – who himself died several years ago but keeps printed-and-bound watch over my new springbok horn – makes Browne’s posthumous tour matter for meditation in his Rings of Saturn.
We like to think that what’s left of us when we’re gone can still belong to us somehow. One of my wife’s uncles, for example, had it written it into his will that his sons may inherit his house only on condition that they not sell it: it would be too painful even in the grave, he felt, to lose out on the low tax rate the property currently enjoys. As the author of Ecclesiastes could have reminded him, ownership even of our homes and bodies is only an accidental and temporary fiction. What we have and what we are is an inheritance for strangers.
Whatever a person may be, it seems he must be more than his material parts. It’s a popular notion of high school biology class that we are physically constituted of different stuff at different stages of life, adding and shedding matter constantly until, in the end, we’re made up of almost nothing that we started out as. Each of us is Heraclitus’s river, different each time it’s stepped into. Atom by atom, we borrow ourselves from plants and animals and stones of near and distant ages, and from burst stars and interstellar gas clouds of inconceivable hoariness. In geologic time to come, in a peculiar mode of afterlife, our constituent parts are repurposed into infinite successions of new and varied forms.
A person, by this view, may be imagined as not a material thing or collection of things at all, but rather as an organizing principle, a crook in the stream that shapes the flow (of matter, of consciousness) in a particular way for a particular – and depressingly brief – interval. Then the walls of the channel collapse, the stream overflows its banks, and new channels are cut from the relics of the old.
I am willing to believe that all of this is true – it may even be beautiful – but still we feel there’s something dear about those bones. The material stuff of a life, however arbitrarily procured or prodigally redistributed, is not Nothing after all. It is Something and humanly relevant. There’s a passage from Pragmatism in which William James captures the sense of this. No one, James writes, who has looked in the face of a dead child or parent or friend should fail to sense the basic holiness of matter:
[T]he mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate cooperates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.
If this is only sentimentality then only sentimentality is needed for the building of whole cultures and faiths and arts. These are impossible without aid from the beloved dead. Their bones, like their books, serve to humanize the past, the material order, and our own finale. If part of me is tempted to break into that shop in Berkeley afterhours and deliver our skeletal friends to a well-deserved retirement under the sod, another part sympathizes with the Capuchins of Palermo and the New Guinean tribesmen who keep their dead well tended and in fresh clothes because they can’t bear to be parted from them.
To repurpose a phrase from Sterne, “The heart is for saving what it can.”