Monday, April 27, 2009

Letters to the Dead

Years, decades, centuries after their deaths, the departed are remembered in the New York Times. Every year, on the date of the death of  Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, the Richard III Society posts an in memoriam notice.  Another society remembers Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford--some people believe it was de Vere not Shakespeare who wrote the plays.  (Here he is in chartreuse, better-dressed than Shakespeare.)  These notices are amusing, eccentric, odd.  They have the quality of lost causes: transforming the child-killer Richard III into a hero, the Earl of Oxford into a great writer.  

The in memoriam notices that take the form of letters to the dead are never eccentric.  'GOODMAN, Roger--To my husband on his 49th Birthday.  I miss you now and always.'  'MAGUIRE, Ian, Esq.  You were my world.  Never out of my thoughts, Sheila.  Miss you always.  Love, Helen, Cleo, Adam, Olivia.'  (I've changed names and details.)  In order to write such a letter one must believe that the beloved--buried under a ton of soil, burnt to ash, drowned in the ocean, fallen into a glacier--is alive and able to read or what passes for reading in the afterlife, where the Times is transmitted daily, the words floating into the ether, entering the minds of the dead--I can't imagine them with ears or eyes.  One must also believe the dead remember the living and look forward to seeing them again.
I confess I read these letters daily!  I need to hear their sad hopefulness, though I do not believe our words reach the dead.             


  1. Departed these many years, this is not the communication I have been waiting for.

    Uncle Sam

  2. Hello, Bluedog:
    What would the departed like to hear? Intriguing comment!

  3. Your loving uncle can only quote the Dido of Henry Purcell (who will be pleased by the plug):
    "Remember me, but ah, forget my fate."

  4. I did and do remember my uncle Sam Jacobs. The only word I have for him is: love!

  5. Well, Mim, I can't rightly say I believe - but I imagine that our words reach them. And isn't it given to poets - this permission to speak to the dead? In which case it follows that those who address the dead are committing some kind of poetic act.

  6. Hello, Signs:
    The distinction between imagining and believing: we do speak to the dead in our poems. Not just in our poems, in our dreams.