The Heavy and the Dead

I once arrived for a great-aunt’s memorial service just as her son was rushing out to, in his words, “fetch mother.” He’d left the urn containing her ashes on the table at home and didn’t want to start things without her. What an odd errand that must have been. After committing himself to the continued personhood of her remains, could he possibly have tucked her into the trunk for the return drive? Wasn’t he emotionally obliged to set the urn on the passenger seat instead? And if so, wouldn’t it have been necessary to buckle her in to prevent the urn from spilling? Circumstances like these tempt us to suspect that the grand machinery of the cosmos and all its patient sifting of chance serve only for the production of Woody Allen moments.

Other animals don’t bother moving deceased friends and relatives from one place to another. I did hear once about a chimpanzee in such denial of the death of her baby that she carried it around for a week. But while they may gather to sniff and grieve, animals are generally content to let the dead lie where they’ve fallen. We humans distinguish ourselves by making sure that everyone gets a final, free ride to the cemetery. Some of us get substantially more than that. According to certain rites and traditions, corpses of saints or princes (or parts thereof) are paraded through the streets on holidays, and I read once about a group of Papua New Guinea tribesmen that tie their dead chiefs to rocking chairs and bring them out now and then for a chat and to touch them up with clay.

Incan emperors, and the kings of the Chimu before them, were honored in similar fashion. Their mummies were carried on litters through the streets for special occasions and they continued to live in the palaces they had built and to receive tribute from the territories they had conquered, forever. Through their numerous descendants, retainers and loyalists, dead rulers could exert real political and cultural influence for generations beyond their death. (This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Think of the cult of Reagan.)

Nicolas Malebranche and the preformationists had it backwards, it seems, when they imagined that Adam carried us all, to innumerable generations, as microscopic homunculi in his semen. Instead, the burden falls the other way and we’re the ones who have to carry our ancestors around with us. And not merely by remembrance, habits or predilections, of course, but in our genes. It’s my father who’s required now to endure his father’s heart disease, and not vice versa. In one of his essays, Montaigne marveled at how his own father had developed kidney stones in his middle sixties, decades after begetting Montaigne himself, but still had somehow passed down the curse:

Where was the propensity to this infirmity hatching all this time? And when he was so far from the ailment, how did this slight bit of his substance, with which he made me, bear so great an impression of it for its share? And moreover, how did it remain so concealed that I began to feel it forty-five years later? If anyone will enlighten me about this process, I will believe him about as many other miracles as he wants.

It’s not our physical descendants only who will have to carry us with them, but also our non-living children, the offspring of our minds. Family likeness is frequently unmistakable in art. We recognize a Rembrandt or an El Greco right away. I would know within a paragraph, I think, whether a certain passage were Emerson’s. I could guess in a sentence or two if it were Melville’s or Wodehouse’s. Within a couple measures, I feel sure I could distinguish Beethoven from Bach from Chopin. In his introduction to the reader, Cervantes says of Don Quixote that “I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest, and the cleverest that could be imagined; but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like.”

Without denying the possibility of original variation, there’s a lineage to every tone and word, a family history in every folly or obsession, an inheritance of glory or glorious failure in every vital attempt. None of us conceives immaculately. Which is just fine, because in the end we’d like to think that someone rather like ourselves – someone accustomed to our weight and sympathetic to our continued, if defunct, personhood – will strap us in gently and deliver us to the memorial.

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