Saturday, February 26, 2022

Modern Anthropology

I was checking out whether the ice along the roads of a large local cemetery where I take walks were walkable without crampons.  I had my granddaughter with me, as I cut in a back way (known to but a few) and drove toward the farthest entrance on the other side. She mentioned as we passed one of the monuments that it was "spooky," or "creepy." We were too far past for me to discern which one she meant. But I had walked past all of the sites several times, and had not thought of any of them as particularly odd or alarming.

Also, she has been in cemeteries with sculpture and large monuments before, and as most mortuary symbolism is basic Christian, all of which she is familiar with, I was puzzled as to what had troubled her. I made a point of walking that route the next day. What jumped out at me is how many of them would seem uncomfortable to a modern ten-year-old girl. It is a French-Canadian Catholic cemetery, and that particular section is older, so many of the stones were placed 60-100 years ago. Most families tend toward the traditional when burying spouse or parent, so the artistic style is likely to be decades before that. Our religious art tends toward the gentle, welcoming, comforting expressions on Jesus or the various saints these days, but that was not the case then.  The faces were often pained, as if sharing the mourner's sadness rather than seeking to alleviate it. Some were stylised and otherworldly, with shrouded faces. Saints are often identifiable by the objects they are holding, but I am not Catholic and know very few of these. Even though I grew up in French-Canadian Manchester, I don't know what saints are preferred, though I imagine I would start with the names of the various churches, eliminating those which are clearly Polish or Irish. Yet even at that, Catholic biographies sometimes have odd turns, of an appeal to a particular saint in time of need with a story of deliverance or comfort, so there are often idiosyncratic choices of who one might feel closest to or devoted to.

As I had walked in this cemetery before without being surprised by any of the representations, none could have been that removed from what is familiar to me. The somber or shrouded saints were part of my background since the 1950s, I just had not noted them.  They were normal then, likely in Protestant cemeteries as well. But Sarah was born after 2010, so there are some layers of strangeness and unfamiliarity for her. 

We find Puritan deaths-heads on gravestones very strange now, but they are only a few hundred years ago.  The meaning of symbols disappears quickly from the popular imagination and requires study to interpret.  How much more when we dig up something from 6,000 years ago and try to piece together what it meant to them. However strange they are to us, they were understood at a glance at one time. We are guessing.  I listened to an archaeologist give an example. "If we saw from our own time or not too long before a carved figure of a girl in a hooded cape carrying a basket talking to a wolf we would know immediately what story it referred to. But a thousand years from now people might concoct any number of theories what it meant - all of them wrong."

I look at the cemetery differently now.  It is in many ways quite strange. I do not feel confident I know what these people were thinking, and only partly what they believed, even though I share a religion and a close location with them, and there is some overlap of the years of our lives.


james said...

Literary references too... 20+ years ago I read an essay by a man who worked with a magazine, describing an incident in which he was commiserating with a colleague who felt overworked by management, saying that he was forced to "make bricks without straw". Blank look from a nominally well-educated writer.
For that matter, about a dozen years ago I was talking to a docent at a local botany garden who was explaining why he felt a need to "give back" in his retirement from the U. I said "From him to whom much is given, much is required." He didn't recognize the quote--thought I'd come up with it myself.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have drawn blank stares many times when using "straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel."