Memento Mori

This past month my summer and winter existences have overlapped.

April brings custodial duties. I called myself a custodian on the census, although apparently “monument steward” was available. I am a castellan, a Steward of Gondor awaiting the Return of the King. He’s the character who builds his own funeral pyre and lies atop it alive. Quite an image.

Apparently, in crematoria, the bodies sit up straight. Stripped spines curling up with the heat.

In coffins, they used to have a bell to ring for attention if they’d somehow made a mistake.

Embalming is at least chemically un-survivable but supposedly distressing to the touch of relatives.

My potter friend wrote a speculation on the custom of the Neolithic folk at Skara. In it, they mummify their dead but keep them on a shelf to be wheeled out on special occasions. My colleague wants to be mummified or at least kept above ground, in a mausoleum. Like Lenin? I ask. But I know that was against his wishes.

I think I’d want to have a normie burial. The thought of complete annihilation and grinding down bones somehow doesn’t appeal to me. Neither would I be chemically dissolved like Desmond Tutu. I’d probably like to overlook the Harray and Stenness Lochs, the twin humps of the Hoy hills. Ending up there would be nice, wherever I go in the interim.

Recently, I read a memoir where the author sets about carving her own gravestone. At work, I’m surrounded by astonishing feats of masonry, both medieval and modern. Skills passed down through millennia. The potter has his headstone readymade, propped up against a wall in his garden. The inscription reads, “Forgotten but not gone”.

Not that I haven’t thought of more dramatic ends. Maybe I’ll be put in a yole and shot with a flaming arrow. Sink into the sea with a sizzling hiss.

Spaghettification has also crossed my mind, as has being launched into the sun. A gravitational process rather than active disposal. I wouldn’t want to be released into the vacuum. I suppose going out the airlock is the equivalent of burial at sea for starships.

Memento mori are all about me in the Cathedral and I’m asked about them every other day. There are more in St Magnus. Many of them are of 17th-century vintage. Skull and crossbones reminders of death. Hamlet’s Yorick is likely the most famous; the fool he knew from childhood. A fellow of infinite jest. The Dane is aye jumping into graves, making dramatic entrances at funerals.

I went to see The Northman, which is based on the Norse legend on which Hamlet is loosely based. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year, though I very much enjoyed The Batman – my first outing to the pictures since the initial lockdown.

It doesn’t seem possible to design a film more suited to appeal to me. It’s an expertly crafted epic of revenge, myth and magic. Its geographic span stretches from the Kievan Rus to the far west of Iceland. Mentioned in passing, though, is Constantinople, and, of course, the Vikings thought of themselves as occupying one plane of reality, Miðgarð – a particular cross-section of the world tree, Yggdrasil.

These Norsemen, as depicted by Robert Eggers, are historical, in the sense that they are the most authentic they have ever been on screen, but also historicised, in that they have a sense of their origins, if only half-remembered and dreamlike. For one, the proto-Norse burial mounds from which the protagonist must wrest the sword, Draugr – a blade from the murky urgermanischem Zeitalter. Also, the chambered cairn of Hrafnsey from an even remoter past, several peoples ago even then. The stone slab passageways where rituals are replicated in ignorance of their bygone significance – the director was apparently inspired by Maeshowe.

Shakespeare’s parallel text runs through the film. Eggers’s Claudius-figure’s words fly up not to heaven but Asgarð and Oðinn. Amleþ, unlike his Renaissance cousin, has no hesitation at all about dispatching his enemies. Madness is not a put-on antic disposition but a berserker rage or mushroom induced paranoia trip.

There is another reason I enjoyed the film so much, but I think I will let you watch it and find out for yourself!

Anyhow, I have come to the end of my CLLB. Handed in all my assignments and exams. Now I am looking to the summer ahead and for what seems like the first time in a while, planning for the medium-term future.

My plan for the end of this month is to embark on the St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose Abbey to Lindisfarne. I will be covering the journey over three days and staying in youth hostels along the route. My idea was to dedicate the pilgrimage to my friend Charles who walked it between finishing exams and graduation in 2019. I later heard he got his results unterwegs and he and John were able to share a euphoric moment with their doubles firsts on the approach to Holy Island. Personally, I’d be happy with a merit pass for this degree no. 2. It’s not impossible I might be I am graded staff in hand though, as he was.

I have a strong desire to visit Europe again, not having left the UK since 2018 and thwarted by you-know-what for the past two years. My particular priority would be to explore southern Germany and maybe Austria. It could be I’ll be able to spend some time with a friend from the French-Swiss border. All this is speculation though, and I’ve got the added stress of finding a flat for the start of the diploma. But overall, things are on the up and I am determined to keep the momentum going into a summer resembling normality, which, of course, I hope to transcend to some degree through these mini-adventures into the unknown.  

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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