Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The house of the living

‘I died many times, but never like this.’

Leburna was a stage actor, and his gravestone – originally from the present-day Croatian city of Sisak – is held at the National Hungarian Museum in Budapest. As epitaphs go, Leburna’s is up there with Spike Millgan’s (‘I told you I was ill’). The stone goes on to note that the actor lived ‘one hundred years, more or less’, and that he wished well to those still living.

My family always had a passion for ancient things, and so as a child I often found myself staring at symbols and inscriptions marking the presence of the long-time dead. Except when you measure death by the centuries or millennia, you discover it almost looks like life. The Etruscan necropoles are really indistinguishable from regular cities entombed by time. So, too, an ancient stone or stele doesn’t convey death so much as the life that produced it. A grain of this truth is to be found perhaps in the Hebrew word for cemetery: Beth hachaim, or ‘house of the living’. As if it were only them, the dead, who could lay claims to existing at all.

With the possible exception of prophets and godships, there is no mourning somebody who lived two thousand years ago, no matter how tragic the circumstances of their death. But very occasionally we can be reminded of their passage.

A favourite book of my mother’s that I have kept contains Latin inscriptions, mostly funerary – including the epitaph of Leburna. It is a Spoon River-like gallery of largely nameless characters, full of a sensibility that I find more sympathetic and contemporary than what gradually became the norm after the continent became Christian. It’s not that these ancients didn’t in believe in something – most inscriptions begin with the letters D.M, a shorthand dedication to the Manes, or spirits of the dead – but rather that those beliefs didn’t go nearly as far in dispensing with death, therefore with life.

These dead are not with the angels but in ground. They don’t look forward to salvation and eternity, but mourn what they lost and gently chide or encourage the living. Says freed slave Marcus Vitellius Theodeorus:
You, who are walking past, come here. Rest for a moment. You shake your head? You don’t feel like it? Yet it’s here you’re going to have to return.
While a nameless departed in Narbonne laments:
This is your resting place. I’ve come here reluctantly, but I had no choice.
Others, like Aco Acastus, of modern-day Klagenfurt, dispense advice for living:
Life is short, hope is fragile. Come inside. The fire is ablaze: while there is light, let’s drink, friends.
From Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome, comes the echo:
Hic situs finita luce. Here lies, the light having gone out.

Some of the stones speak in a terrible voice. Credo certe ne cras – ‘I am certain that there is no tomorrow’, says a former soldier garrisoned at Reggio. Ulterius nihil est morte neque utilius, replies a freed slave from Brescia: ‘There is nothing after death, nothing of any use.’ Others bear curses, threatening swift, supernatural retribution to those who might be tempted to steal the nails (‘may they fly into your eyes’), soil the tombs or rob the corpses. Cryptically, the inscription of a sarcophagus in Rome intones: Hoc est, sic est, aliut fieri non licet. ‘What is, is, and cannot be otherwise.’

But it isn’t the norm. The norm are complaints about the injustices of life (‘Here I lie, Lemisus. Only death spared me from labour.’) and reflections on the mystery of death (‘I lived the way I wanted. Why I died, I do not know.’), but above all polite calls to the living, hoping that they will pay attention. This inscription, found in Rome and dating to the second century BC, is a typical example:
Stranger, I have few things to say: take a break and read. This is the plain grave of a woman who possessed beauty. Her parents called her Claudia. She loved her husband with all her heart. She gave birth to two children: one, who still walks the earth, the other whom she had to bury under it. Pleasant to talk to, honest in her demeanour, she kept the house in order. She spun wool.
I’m done. You may go.

These voices etched in stone are both close and distant. Close, because of their humanity: the simple stories of loss and regret, the humour (‘I have found a place where I can stay forever, rent-free’), the admonishments, even when they are clichéd, speak to us directly. Distant, because of the language and the codes, and because of the visible effects of time. Nothing is forever, not even these marks in the marble or granite: many have become illegible already. As for the bodies, they have long since been returned to the ground, their atoms borrowed for other processes, both living an inert. Their death is so remote that it’s a kind of living.

Barring premature extinction, we, too, shall be ancient some day, and I cannot begin to imagine what will be thought of us. Not as historical agents – that doesn’t bear thinking about – but as people who lived ordinary lives, and of those lives sought to transmit the essence or meaning. What form will our memorials take, whose will survive and by what sort of accident?

The question is not for us. Personally, I just hope Spike Milligan makes it.

Lidia Storoni Mazzolani (ed.). Iscrizioni funerarie, sortilegi e pronostici di Roma antica. Turin, Einaudi: 1973.

We launched our issue of Overland earlier this month in Wellington. Francis Cook wrote up the event and took some photos for Scoop, whil Pip Adam made a podcast. Philip Matthews reviewed us in Your Weekend. The issue is available in some bookshops or directly from the source, with free postage in New Zealand.

1 comment:

Martin Edmond said...

The melancholy of the ancients seems to me deeper than that of the moderns, who all more or less assume an immortality on the far side of the black pit. For the ancients the black pit was infinity itself; their dreams take shape and pass against a background of unchanging ebony. No cries, no struggles, only the fixity of the pensive gaze.

Flaubert, in a letter about Lucretius