Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 8 Art, Pages 234-235

This is an interesting image. Men are lowering a casket into . . . what? The act of lowering the casket is one of the last of a series of rituals that are frequently accompany death and dying in the Western world. We have rituals (both medical and religious) when a person is dying and when a person has died, rituals (both medical and religious) for the cleansing and preservation of the body, rituals for the viewing of the body and consoling the family, funeral rituals, and, finally, rituals for burial. We might see the top half of this image a representing all of that. But what about the bottom half?

Dr. Dugdale interprets it as representing the “emotional chaos brought about by death” in the midst of which “ritual creates order.” She says,

In this image, a group of men lowers a coffin into the ground; but the space where the hole should be is empty. The suspension of the coffin in space–indeed the realization that the men themselves are suspended–underscores the existential and emotional chaos brought about by death. Ritual creates order in the midst of such chaos.

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I think Dr. Dugdale’s interpretation of the emptiness as chaos is valid. I like the idea of ritual creating order in the midst of chaos. But I think this image is so interesting because there seem to be lots of other possible interpretations. Dr. Dugdale’s observation that the men are suspended along with the coffin suggests to me a rather cynical interpretation. Maybe all that ritual has nothing to stand on? Maybe it all collapses into meaningless nothingness? I don’t think that’s true. But it does seem like a plausible interpretation of this image.

The emptiness might also represent mystery. The future of the dead is a mystery to the living. People of religious faith, or with certain philosophical convictions, may consider some truths about the afterlife to be knowable and/or revealed by God. As a Catholic Christian, there is much that I firmly believe about life after death. But it is still beyond my experience and even beyond by imagining. The Judeo-Christian scriptures include numerous images of the afterlife, images of waiting, of punishment, and of glorious fulfillment. In the end, however, all human language and imagination falls short. As St. Paul says, “Oh, the depth or the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” (Roman 11:33).

One definition of mystery that I like is: “something we can always know more of but never know all of.” We can always study, pray over, and reflect upon all that is revealed to us about life after death, and with great profit. But it remains mysterious, beyond the experience that is available to us and the comprehension of which we are now capable. There is so much we will never know in this life.

Perhaps the best way to interpret the emptiness in this image is to see it both as the chaos that is overcome by order and the mystery to which our rituals must ultimately yield. In committing the dead to their graves as the last act in our sequence of rituals, we affirm the order of God in which we believe and for which we hope. We also bow before the mystery that “eye has not seen and ear has not heard” (I Corinthians 2:9).

4 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 8 Art, Pages 234-235”

  1. When I see images like that I cannot help but also to liken it to the chaos that the leave behind in the world. Also, it feels like that chaos represents the unknown. Many people who do not live a religious life do question what they believe when they are sick or their loved ones pass away.

    We pray and hope for them. I cannot say how many times I have wanted to ask my loves who have passed away for their opinion or their advice. When I have helped with their possessions, I wished that they could be there to take of these things themselves. In those moments the world has felt disordered to me.

    I also agree with Dr. Dugdale that ritual creates order. We know what steps to take when our loved ones pass away. I have felt propelled through these last steps.

  2. Vera O – my first inner response to the bottom of the photo was “empty” an “abyss” just nothing! To collapse into nothing.,..or any other alternate state of empty interests me as well. There was an article some years ago concerning “Phantom graves”…where coffins disintegrate into the earth in areas not kept up…through flood and erosion…into the earth…In today’s ritual, there is no “actual lowering into the earth” while the family is present…heavy wooden planks are “crossed” over the plot and frequently flowers are strewn by individual family members…and away we go!! (back to life!!) Ironically, I was humming the church song “eye has not seen, nor ear heard…..and then you closed the commentary with that line from Corinthians…Maybe that is the conclusion…to be beyond the grave…what is there is a mystery, unsolved, and unknown…..not an abyss, of nothingness, just unknown, a mystery. …which eyes and ears have not seen or heard…what God has ready……………and so forth.

  3. Some of the more terrifying pictures from Michael Dugger feature dark backgrounds. In stark contrast, this picture of the death ritual is not set in darkness. In fact, the images stand alone. The absence of the ground reminds us that we are not really on solid footing, nor do we know exactly where we are going after our earthly lives. But the brightness behind the images conveys hope in the midst of uncertainty. End of life rituals give us an opportunity to serve each other when we feel helpless and lost. The lower half of this canvas is blank, leaving space for us to paint our own futures.

  4. I find this image to be a powerful closure to Dugdale’s preceding long discussion about ritual and the end of life. Here is ritual, here is the best that we can offer to ourselves & the deceased as a means of closure: and yet still something is missing. (Not just something, half the image!) In other circumstances, that something would typically be represented as a hole: in this case, a hole is too easy a solution so the artist left the image blank: because we often desire concrete, knowable answers – and we will not get that from death.

    I agree that the fact that the men aren’t standing on anything is not my preferred interpretation. Practically, they could not be depicted standing on anything without, by definition, creating a hole. (The artist could have chosen to represent this with a bottomless hole – but I feel like even that would suggest something concrete about death, and the point is that death is a black box for the living.)

    Nonetheless, the top half of the image is incredibly important. It allows us to know we did what we could do as the living, for the dead & for ourselves. That will never be complete, and that is why we grieve, and why we remember. Perhaps the bottom half of the image could be filled in with these things: intangibles that help to fill the empty space left by death.

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