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[Readings]

Near-Death Experience

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From An Inventory of Losses, a collection of fictive essays that will be published next month by New Directions. Translated from the German.

On an August day a few years ago I visited a town in the north. It lies on one of the inner-most bays of a marine inlet that has extended far into the interior of the land since the Ice Age, and whose brackish water is home in spring to herring, in summer to eels, in autumn to cod, and in winter to carp, pike, and bream; hence fishermen ply their trade there to this day. For centuries these men and their families have lived in a quaint neighborhood, consisting of little more than two cobbled streets, a drying place for the nets, and a monastery now occupied only by two aristocratic old ladies. In short, it is one of those seemingly timeless places that might very well tempt one to believe that some bygone age, as vague as it is appealing, is still alive today. Yet what lodged in my memory was not the leggy hollyhocks in front of the squat, white-washed houses, nor their brightly painted wooden doors, nor the narrow alleys between the buildings. Rather, it was that I found in the village center, instead of a market square, a graveyard shaded by the foliage of young lime trees and enclosed by cast-iron railings. In the place where goods would normally be exchanged for money, the dead and buried were instead “resting in peace.” My astonishment, which I initially took for unease, was further compounded when someone pointed out the house of a woman who, while she cooked in her kitchen, was able to look out upon the grave of her prematurely deceased son. It became clear to me that the centuries-old tradition of the town’s funeral-rites guild had resulted in the dead and the living of the same family abiding in close proximity. Of course, I had visited other burial sites before. Yet none touched me as deeply as the fishing community’s cemetery, whose peculiar shape—a compromise between a circle and a square—struck me as the very emblem of the remarkable utopia I saw embodied there: a life where death was always in view. For a long time I was convinced that in this place, whose Danish name means “small island” or “surrounded by water,” one is closer to life, precisely because its inhabitants had literally brought the dead into their midst instead of—as is otherwise the norm in our latitudes—banishing them beyond the city gates.

Of course, this is just one of myriad ways of dealing with death. It is fundamentally no more crude or caring than that of the Callatiae tribe whose custom, as Herodotus attests, was to eat their deceased parents, and who were horrified when they learned of the Greeks’ tradition of cremating theirs. Indeed opinions differ as to who is closer to life: someone constantly reminded of his own mortality or someone who manages to suppress all thought of it. And likewise on the question of which is more terrifying: the notion that everything comes to an end, or the thought that it may not.


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July 2020