The season of souls is upon us, marked with playful front-porch ghosts and ghouls, prayerful cemetery remembrances, and all things spine-tingling, mind-shaking, and funereal.
It is a chipper, cheerful time of year, despite the deathly themes that festoon our living spaces. In addition to a Rosary for the faithful departed, a scary movie, and trick-or-treating with children, consider this eerie and arresting little verse from 1861 by American poet, Emily Dickinson, entitled “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.”
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
This is a nightmarish little poem that teeters precariously on the edge of a metaphor of mental collapse—a fall that all are prey to insofar as they have a funeral of some sort in store. Here, the funeral mentioned may be one for the demise of a mind, creeping along and gathering inevitable, overpowering momentum, plunging into either the mouth of madness or despair. Whatever it alludes to, this poem certainly occupies a dark corner, but Emily Dickinson was something of a dark soul. Whether by madness or mortality, we will all lose our grip in time and will descend beneath the silent gaze of mourners.
The prospect of losing one’s life, of course, bears more universal application than losing one’s mind. These ghostly lines float and fall with the impending sense of death that we all have as those who must die. We have all had a dim, dreamy impression of a funeral in our brain, either of one we attended or one that we anticipate, but to suddenly have that funeral solidify into a reality centered around us is a thing for the horror stories. Most people prefer to keep that eventuality as vague and distant as possible. So, should someone unexpectedly find themself in attendance at their own funeral—and not it the ironic way that Tom Sawyer did—it could easily involve a sensation that would be disquieting, to say the least.
For the narrator in the poem, the consciousness of a strange funeral with mourners that tread with leaden boots back and forth to the beat of a drum comes crashing into the reality of her own funeral, breaking through the floors of all the worlds in a freefall into oblivion—or conclusion—or completion—or something else, perhaps. This fall is not unlike Tolstoy’s struggling, screaming protagonist in “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” who fought tooth and nail to rationalize and recoil his way out of the “black sack” that death was thrusting him into with indomitable force. But there was no way out, and there still isn’t.
Dickinson’s poem can be seen as playing with a dark twist of fate, but it can assume more somber tones as a dawn of death, a terrible realization or revelation—an apocalypse—when a detached and dreaded premonition becomes a vivid presentation, and ghostly footsteps become heavy tramps, and the pulse of a weird ritual becomes a pounding heartbeat in one’s own chest—when we become as passive as an ear alone that can only hear the yawning heavens cry at us like out of the throat of an infinite bell. Death comes for all, and for many, like a thief in the night, when they are least expecting it.
But Dickinson’s poem, for all its anxiety and dread, also hints at the mystery that should give those who fear death some comfort—that we are sojourners on this earth, strangers in a strange land, like shipwrecks that want to go home. Death can and should be that homecoming, even if it means breaking through worlds to get at that great beyond where there are no more tears, no more sighing, no more pain. Death is not necessarily a doom.
In our day, death is either an unmentionable in need of euphemisms and platitudes, or else it is a tyrant of screaming, secular horror. Death is held in one of two cultural attitudes: denial or domination. Both extremes have something in common, though: fear. While Death should not be fearfully ignored or fearfully exalted, we must be in touch with the reality of death if we are to live forever.
Somewhere in the middle of death-denial and death-domination lies the human relation with death: the acknowledgement of what death must be and what it must bring.
This median experience is what the extremes miss by a mile. If that middle ground is ever recovered, we would inter their dead with spades again instead of leaving the task to impersonal backhoes. Do we truly bury the dead, as the corporal work of mercy commands? It is a good question. And one that is worth asking in a society segregated from the rites and realities of death, even as they struggle with the wages of sin, as though in mute denial or raging submission of some unbearable fact. No matter how self-destructive the world is, people still want to live forever as the ancients did—that desire is the basis of all philosophy and theology. Death must, when all is said and done, play the right part in that desire for eternal life if it is to be fulfilled.
Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a funeral in my Brain” is an expression of the prevalent fear of death, which is the challenge of Halloween, taken from a Catholic point of view. We must learn to laugh at death, and not let him have the final word. The poem’s final word bears a similar challenge. That “then,” is particularly peculiar in this descent into nothing or everything. It can be understood as a breaking off to denote the everlasting unknown, or a finality that is everlastingly whole as the visions of reality become ever broader even as they come together. Which will it be for you—then?
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