I have been making art from remnants of death and road kill for over thirty years. During that time a combination of unwise lifestyle choices and bad luck, meant that a disproportionate amount of friends and acquaintances have died.
I have seen bodies of the recently deceased,been present at the moment of death, and even been (briefly) declared dead myself.
When I have been in the presence of a corpse I have always been intrigued by how the physical form is so obviously a shell.
I have looked at the body of someone I knew well and invariably wondered where the person I knew or loved, had gone. Although their form looks like them, and bears the marks of the life which they had lived …who the person was, their essence, has seemingly departed.
One of the many things about Christianity that doesn’t appeal to me, is their allocation of only one ‘soul’.
It is clear to me, that if a soul does exist, it would have many facets.
Okay, I’m not the first to say this and looking to a variety of belief systems both historical and contemporary, this isn’t a radical statement. There are so many layers of animating life force present in beings that the presence of only one ‘soul’ seems to be denial of many facets of individual existence.
I am going to put forward some of my experiences and beliefs on the subject.
I am not constructing an argument aiming for a specific conclusion, nor operating from a particular religious, scientific or philosophical perspective.
I’m simply writing up some observations I have made about death, from my contact with it.
Bodies and especially bones hold memory. Obviously a dead body creates a visual reminder of what existed. Human beings and domesticated animals tend to have an acquired individual nature that superficially overrides the memory of their genus.
Once the viewer moves beyond the individual nature of a corpse (unless the animal concerned is wild, where personal characteristics don’t appear to be such an issue) meditating on the body can be used as a way of gaining access to the nature of the species.
I find that bones actually work better with this. I don’t know why. It is possible there is some sort of personal reaction on my part which makes it easier to work with bones on a deeper level than actual flesh, or there may be a more practical reason for this.
When someone or something dies, the body becomes empty. This absence of animating spark seems more dramatic with human beings, but of course that may be because I have a greater connection with them, and thus more emotional reaction to their bodies.
Before the moment of death from illness there is often a moment when there is a power flare, so to speak, and an inner and archetypical self shines through. This often leads to the illusion that the person concerned is recovering.
Sometimes spirits of the departed retain a memory of a particular characteristic, hanging onto this and using it as a visual marker to their old identity. This marker could be be a long term illness or disability for instance.
The dead want to live again. They struggle to retain form of some sort through appreciation, attention and feeding, although the wrong sort of attention can create problems.
The ideal relationship with the dead, like that with the past, is one of acknowledgement, integration then release.However these proverbial shades can also be worked with and relationships built up with them.
Working with the dead safely requires a secure sense of your own intuition as they can and do lie. A strong self knowledge is also essential as perceptions can be coloured by conditioning and this can create misinformation and misinterpretation.
There are some people that spirits of the dead gravitate towards. Why this is, I don’t know.
I was at a reading given recently by a well known writer who specialises in historical novels and I watched as faces of the dead jostled within her to be heard. I have only once seen this so strongly before, and this was in the face of a dying woman who had medicated and fought a natural sensitivity all her life.
The dead hold the key to our own identities.
Forgetting them is a way of losing our sense of self, our past and community. Honouring them builds a bridge that carries strength and wisdom through time and realities, and gives the living an ability to create and learn and progress.