Of Deadly Importance

Lately, I have been thinking about the dead. Not my own personal dead, the people I carry with me, and write about, but all the dead. I have been wondering if the dead are too much with us, or not enough with us.

I recently read an article about the dead buried in London. Under almost every house or mall or parking garage in London is a graveyard. In London, they walk on centuries of dead people. Rich people, poor people, people buried in ways we cannot comprehend. They found a the skeleton of a dog, buried in her own grave with her collar but without her head; an iron ring welded in place around an arm. This dog was important to someone, but why? The burial of a dog is as mysterious to us as Easter Island or Stonehenge.

I had at least 10 conversations about what to eat for dinner this week. One day, perhaps while building the 26th century version of a parking garage, someone may find a bone fragment of me and wonder what 21st century people ate for dinner. All those  conversations, and in 600 years, no one will know what we ate for dinner. Not just what I ate for dinner, but what we, as a people, ate for dinner.

There was a man who died while hiking the Appalachian Trail. No one knew his name or where he came from. When he died, he was 83 lbs. He was found with cash and food. For months, people tried to unravel the mystery and created their own stories about him. When the truth came out, he was none of the things people thought. He was just a person. A little more screwed up and worse than a lot of people, but still, just a person who is now dead. Whatever we’ve learned, we still don’t really know why.

I have been reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am struck by the fact that her family was poor, heart-breakingly poor in a way we can’t truly comprehend. They were poor for generations. Then, Laura wrote Little House and was quite wealthy when she died. Her daughter Rose, was an only child, and she died without children. Today, her estate is worth over $100,000,000 and will be inherited by the daughter of Rose’s lawyer/manager, Roger MacBride. MacBride was not a son of poverty. He went to Princeton and Harvard. What did all the Ingalls’ striving mean? All that work, for generations, for someone else to inherit the benefit.

It is tempting to equate a lack of knowing and a lack of permanence with a lack of importance.

Does it matter what I eat for dinner? Does it matter why a dog was buried without a head? Does it matter why a young man walked into the woods and never came out? Does what you do, what you want, what you work for matter if it won’t last for more than a generation?

Maybe it’s all important. Because the dead are with us. Or maybe none of it is important, because the dead are with us.

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