When I die please bury me
In a high-top Stetson hat,
Put a 20-dollar gold piece on my watch-chain
So the boys will know I died standing pat.
'Saint James Infirmary'
A few years ago I was looking at a group of paintings by Poussin in which Death dances to a stately tune, though always with Panic as part of the line-up, and began to realise that the basic beat of the tune - the paintings' processional language, and even the wildness upsetting the funeral - was borrowed from reliefs of Meleager, Endymion, the Niobids and the rest that Romans had chosen for the sides of their stone coffins. I was in Rome at the time, and the coffins were everywhere. So I found myself standing on the stairs of the Palazzo Mattei, trying to imagine the sensibility behind the solid collision of Mars and Rhea Silvia, and leafing endlessly through the four volumes of Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs devoted to Dionysos. It was a strange world, and in it I thought I might find the clue to Poussin's paganism. Later on, ways led out to the wider world of death. Things rescued from the Han grave pits - coffins of stone or wood, carved or painted; funeral banners; ritual objects; murdered wives and concubines - seemed a reasonable point of comparison.[*] Perhaps they would sharpen my sense of what was special to the Romans' last rites. And somewhere behind the exercise, I now see, was the hope that if I immersed myself deeply enough in the universe of tombstones I would discover that death in faraway places, back at the turn of the world, had been different. That is always the hope.
LRB 7 January 2010 | PDF Download