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.Page 234
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).