Magical Thinking: January 4, 2014

I revisited the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass. last November with two friends from Holland. It was a sightseeing trip. It seemed like the right kind of New Englandy thing to do.  Authors Ridge is world famous for being the last resting place of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, Little Men and little else. Ralph Waldo Emerson is there, too, as is Nathaniel Hawthorne and, of course, Henry David Thoreau. What could say New England better than Author's Ridge? It is the literary version of the 1985-86 Boston Celtics.

Walking along the path that takes you from one gravesite to the other, it is not hard to pick out the famous authors from the less famous relatives that lie beside them.  The reason is detritus.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

The Ralph Waldo Emerson memorial boulder (photo above) is topped with rocks that visitors have obviously put there and, if you double-click on the photograph, just above the plaque with all the vital details, you will see a collection of small change.

Emerson isnt the only one to receive such largess.

Henry David Thoreau's Grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

At Henry David Thoreau's more appropriately modest headstone (photo above), there are ballpoint pens, money, pine cones and more rocks. Visitors have even left messages. The large eggshell blue stone in the photograph above is inscribed with a quote from Walden Pond. It says:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Someone went to a lot of trouble to ink it onto that stone. I wondered why? I asked a psychiatrist friend of mine.  He gave me a very sensible answer.

He said, “People find it impossible to accept death. So they engage in all kinds of death denial behavior, like leaving messages, money and writing implements at grave sites.”

The idea is that these are things that you do with the living; i.e. give them money and pens and send messages.  If you do the same to the dead, then they won't be dead, will they?  It is a kind of magical thinking.

The practice goes way back. I wrote a blog about the terracotta soldiers of Xian City in Shaanxi Province, China. You can read about it hereThe incredible 6,000 man army was meant to serve Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China (247-220BC) in the next world. Or think of the tomb of Tutankhamen. It was filled with artefacts intended to allow the boy king to live in the next world the way he did in this one. Among the artifacts were four canopic jars, one each for his liver, lungs, stomach and intestines.  It was reasoned that he would need these to survive in the next world.

In his autobiography Undiluted Hocus-Pocus (Princeton University Press, 2013) Martin Gardner described his belief in God in these words: “There are no proofs of God or of an afterlife. Indeed, all experience suggests there is no God...My faith [is/SJK]...a lasting escape from the despair that follows a stabbing realization that you and everyone else are soon to vanish utterly from the universe.”

That's what the terracottta army, all those canopic jars and the ballpoint pens on Henry David Thoreau's tombstone have in common. They are an attempt to escape from the despair of vanishing utterly from the universe.

Or as Woody Allen once said, "I don't believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear."