Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My Morbid Obsession

So, I'm thinking about a second blog. Probably doesn't make sense, as my first is time consuming enough. However, the blog pundits often recommend that one's subject matter should be focused; that one ought to write about one's area of expertise. I consider myself to be a generalist--that is, I know a little about a lot. Makes for an exciting life of intellectual inquiry and discovery, but doesn't do much for being an expert at anything.

However, if there is a thread that runs through my life, it would be my fascination with death. That's right. A wee bit morbid, but there it is. It all started when I was a boy, as I wandered alone around old cemeteries and made rubbings of 18th century gravestones. And then there arose my interest in the Civil War. As I discussed in a recent post, I wrote about my two Heald ancestors, Frank and James, who died during that conflict, a conflict that witnessed the death of some 620,00 Americans. Professionally, my greatest gift--hands down--is the writing and preaching of memorial service homilies. An undertaker in Wellesley, MA--for whom I did numerous services--nicknamed me "buryin' Dave." And now there's my work as a hospice chaplain...

Nineteenth century Americans were much more at home with death than we are today. Some would say they were obsessed about it. I love the opening lines of the Prologue to Robert D. Richardson, Jr.'s magnificent Emerson: The Mind on Fire:

On March 29, 1832, the twenty-eight-year-old Emerson visited the tomb of his young wife, Ellen, who had been buried a year and two months earlier. He was in the habit of walking from Boston out to her grave in Roxbury every day, but on this particular day he did more than commune with the spirit of the departed Ellen: he opened the coffin. Ellen had been young and pretty. She was seventeen when they were engaged, eighteen when married. They had made frantic efforts at a cure, including long open-air carriage rides and massive doses of country air. Their life together had been stained almost from the start by the bright red of Ellen's coughing.

Wow! Yes, Mr. Richardson, you have my attention. I'm yours, lead on. He continues: 

Opening the coffin was not a grisly gothic gesture, not just the wild aberration of an unhinged lover. What Emerson was doing was not unheard of...

Not unheard of? What's with these people?

So the title for my new blog is My Morbid Obsession: Death in Nineteenth Century America, the Civil War, and Beyond. What fun! Now I only need to quit my job.

Please drop me a line and tell me what you think.

(Photo credit: Dr. Burr on the Battlefield, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

1 comment:

Geoff said...

You go, David!

Easy for me to say.

There's this common sense observation rattling around in most spiritual traditions that really "getting it" when it comes to death, brings one fully to life. That one really GNAWS on me because (a) it's good common sense, and (b) I don't "get it", not really.

I have Larry Rosenberg's book but it just sits in the bookcase, year after year, seeming to glower down saying "Oh, right, fine. Go ahead and take that Lee Child book you've read three times already and NOT ME. I'm fine with that. Come back when you grow up, WIMP." My weak response is, "Well, I've read Elizabeth K-R, what do you want from me?"

What exactly did Emerson think he was doing there in that crypt? His wife's death gave him this opportunity to "get it" and he was taking it? Like a Buddhist monk at the charnal ground? The Capuchin monk "cemetary" in Rome?

Would she have been ok with that? (I have to ask that question.) Did he ever write about the experience?

See, you'll do us all a big favor by starting that blog. You could just do a post as the obsession strikes. If it ends up eating DTB, then you'll know where your true blog heart is.