Harris, J. W., ed.
|Genre||Anthology (Mixed Genres) (308 pp.)|
|Keywords||Death and Dying, Family Relationships, Grief, Human Worth, Individuality, Love, Mourning, Ordinary Life, Pain, Society, Suffering, Survival, Trauma|
Death’s power to erode and silence human speech has catalyzed a rich and varied flood of writing, some of which is collected in this book. Each of its four sections is devoted to one of the ways in which we speak and write in the context of death: eulogies, letters, elegies, and epitaphs. Culled from a chronological range stretching roughly from Roman antiquity to the present, these texts represent the famous, the anonymous, and all manner of people in between: as subjects of praise, mourning, and remembrance; as writers of speeches, letters, and poems about the dead; and as recipients of condolence letters.
This collection invites us to consider how many complicated contexts move us to write about death, how varied are our purposes for writing, and how difficult it can be to use words as our medium for expressing grief or death, experiences that defy or defeat language. What can one possibly say to a person grieving a death? What words will actually celebrate the dead and give real comfort to the living? How do we say goodbye to those who have died, or to those who will live after us? This text shows how people widely dispersed in time and circumstances grappled with these questions.
The "Letters" section of the book is particularly engaging because of its intimacy, especially in contrast to the public and sometimes political tone of the eulogies. Some letters give the long-ago deaths of strangers a raw immediacy, like Horace Greeley’s letter to Margaret Fuller describing the death of his five-year-old son, or Ethel Rosenberg’s letter to her children on the eve of her execution.
Others capture illuminating perspectives on death from particular vantage points in life, like Herman Hesse’s observation that in old age, when "we have more friends and intimates in the ’beyond’ than here below, we become curious about this beyond and lose the dread of it" (201). Some of the most compelling letters emerge from bitterly ironic life-plots, like the dying Catherine of Aragon’s letter to Henry the Eighth, in which she avows her lasting love for the man who restructured England’s religious politics in order to divorce her.
Similarly wrenching is a farewell letter Robert Scott wrote on the way home from his failed attempt to discover the South Pole before Roald Amundsen, a letter presumably found eight months later, along with his body. Not just the foreknowledge of death, but also its concealment, adds irony and power to Charles Dickens’s note to his wife Catherine, telling her to come home because their baby daughter is seriously ill (Dickens knew, and we know, that she is already dead).
An index would be a useful addition to the collection, along with dates provided for the poems and for all of the epitaphs. The "elegies" section, while it includes excellent selections from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Langston Hughes, W. H. Auden, and others less famous but no less worthy, includes some questionable light verse choices.
While the volume offers a wide mix of texts, they are mostly specific to Western culture and representative of European or European-American writers. This limitation invites us to consider and seek examples of other traditions of mourning and remembrance; within North American culture, one place to start would be the selections on death and mourning in Trials, Tribulations, and Celebrations: African American Perspectives on Health, Illness, Aging and Loss (see this database).
The collection might offer useful spurs for stimulating medical students to discover their own beliefs about mourning and commemoration.
|Editors||Jill Werman Harris|
|Place Published||New York|
|Annotated by||Holmes, Martha Stoddard|
|Date of Entry||07/05/00|