21 Nov 2013

Need Literary Inspiration? “Remember Death”

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We used to have this (in plaster casting) sitting atop my grandmother’s oak server in our living room. (Finally movers broke it.)

Joe Fassler interviewed Russell Banks for the Atlantic about the inspirational role of his Puritan gravestone casting.

[J.S.] When I asked Russell Banks—whose new story collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, is out today—to contribute to this series, he chose to write about his own prized curio. For five decades, he’s shared his office with a gravestone angel. Its inscription, both a mandate and reminder, has been an inspiration throughout Banks’s writing life. …

[R.B.] I read the phrase the first time a half-century ago in the dark and dusty window of a used furniture store in Keene, New Hampshire. Remember Death. Both words capitalized. They were incised beneath the winged head of a wide-eyed, open-mouthed, plaster angel cast from a late 17th- or early 18th-century slate gravestone. I’d remember if I paid much more than 10 dollars for it—I was newly married then, working as an apprentice plumber and living on a tight budget.

It was a memento mori. I don’t think I even knew what a memento mori was exactly, although growing up in New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts, I’d certainly seen plenty of them in old cemeteries and churchyards. Mostly, they struck me as unpleasant reminders of Puritanism, the wages of sin and the flames of hell, more creepy than religious. This was 1963. I was pointedly irreligious and whatever the opposite of puritanical is. But something about this particular reminder got through to me, as if I had never linked the two words together before, had never probed the meaning of either one alone or truly considered the imperative mood, and I had to own it, had to bring it home to our little apartment and hang it above my writing table, so that every time I looked up from my struggle to write my first poems and stories, I would see it, and I would remember death. Which is not all that easy to do when you are still in your early 20s, in excellent health, have not been to war, and have not yet lost to death anyone close to you. Even Jack Kennedy was still alive and well in Washington, D.C.

The phrase and the image of the messenger who carries it—in this case, an angel, which is to say, a servant of the lord, but more often a skull—long precede Puritanism and probably even precede Christianity itself. Tertullian in his Apologeticus (Chapter 33, 4) tells of an ancient Roman general who assigned a servant to stand behind him whenever the crowd celebrated his exploits and remind him, “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” (“Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you will die!”)

Wise counsel, but not nearly as simple as it may seem. Especially when boiled down to those two words. For to remember death is to look both ways before crossing, to gaze simultaneously into the past and towards the future. You’re being told to look back and remember what has occurred to every human being who has ever lived, and look ahead and remember what will inescapably happen to you as well. You’re also being told to monitor your behavior, your past and future behavior, because all behavior has lasting consequences. Your future is lashed to your past. And you’re being told that every second counts, don’t waste a one. It’s not just a hip, winking reminder, saying, like the title of Jim Morrison’s autobiography, “Nobody gets out of here alive.” No, on a profound level, beyond the purely personal, beyond pop-romanticism, beyond politics, beyond history, beyond even genocide and terrorism, it’s saying, Never forget. I took it as a command, not a mere reminder. …

For half a century I have carried that memento mori with me—from New Hampshire to North Carolina in the mid- and late-’60s, back to New Hampshire, to Jamaica in the mid-1970s, to New York City and Princeton, New Jersey, to upstate New York where I have lived in recent years, and now to Miami where I spend winters. Wherever I have set up my desk and sat myself down to write, my angel has looked down and murmured, Remember Death.

Then in January 2003, on the occasion of my upcoming 60th birthday, my wife and I, my daughter Caerthan and her husband, Alex, and two old friends climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together. One of the two friends was Mark Saxe, a stone carver and sculptor from Rinconada, New Mexico. Unbeknownst to me, halfway up the mountain my wife hired Mark to dig up, literally, if necessary, a rough piece of gray granite large enough to mark a grave and carve into it the words, Remember Death. In early March, a few weeks before my birthday a large wooden crate arrived at our home in the Adirondacks. It weighed close to 200 pounds and took an hour to open. The stone is the size of a sleeping Labrador dog, more or less the shape of the province of Labrador. The words have been beautifully carved into the stone in a classic Times Roman typeface. My name and birth and death dates are not there yet, for which I remain thankful. But there it is, my gravestone, prepared ahead of time (well ahead of time, one hopes) sitting in the corner of my studio, waiting.

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From an old tombstone somewhere in New England: “I told you I was sick”


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