Gateway Auot Festival 2007

There is nothing left of my sister is there? Six feet below her grave there’s just some old remains of a small coffin, and maybe a few scattered bones that haven’t decomposed. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”, or whatever the liturgy says during the burial.

The act of going to her grave is just a bit of symbolism that’s as irrational as believing in Santa Clause. Going there, taking pictures, and then texting them to mum is just a bit of nostalgia for something that was for a little while, and which then ended. It’s the land of never-were and could-have-been, as Doctor Who once put it.

Which makes me wonder about the depths we humans go to cling on to superstitions because they give a momentary twitch of nostalgia, and even sadness. Is it that the never-weres and could-have-beens have such power over humans that it could drive art and culture, and create religions and dogma?

The US astronomer Phil Plaitt once said that humans are created for faith, and that is what makes scepticism so hard. When people lose religion, they start to believe something else instead: UFOs, Wicca, whatever. They don’t tend to go from belief to non-belief. They go from belief in one thing to belief in another thing.

***

Sitting at the grave of my sister with Mark today, in silence, thinking about that never-were and could-have-beens, it struck me as a bit odd that my mother, the penultimate sceptic and who have trained me never to accept anything at face value, and who have been more concerned about me asking when Santa comes that she’s been about me binge-drinking and becoming a total arsehole.

Back when I was eight or thereabouts, I distinctly remember her coming to my room to ask me questions about Santa until I realised that her questions was about getting me to think rationally about the impossibility of a fat man climbing down the chimney on Christmas Eve, rather than to indulge my fancies. She never came to my room to ask me questions when it was a distinct possibility that I would turn into an antisocial arsehole with anger-management issues.

And yet there I sat, at a Christian grave, taking pictures of a grave where I presume the head-stone is the only tangible reminder left that there was ever a girl named Elizabeth that was my sister. And I did it for mum, this formidable sceptic and scientist. Is this her weakness – that she secretly wishes for a reunion one day?

That would go against everything I know about my mother. But there is the Christian grave, and there are the photos on my phone, and there are the receipts of me having sent her the pictures. Does all this really carry meaning beyond a momentary sense of nostalgia?

***

Sometimes, maybe irrationality isn’t so bad? Sometimes, maybe irrationality is welcome, and a solace? Maybe I’m too harsh on people that don’t think, and don’t weigh things, and don’t make an honest appraisal of sources and limits and agendas?

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”. Whether you’re a sceptic or not, that line from the King James’ bible is true. Whether you’re an atheist or an agnostic or a full fledged evangelical fundie, that line is the truth.

The never-weres and could-have-beens are not for the dead, regardless of your faith status. The liturgy is clear; the dead don’t go to some stupid heaven. They die, they rot, the are gone. The Christians put their belief that someday they’ll be magically recreated from those rotted and diminished remains. Like a Doctor Frankenstein, Jesus will come back and stitch them back together, and they’ll shuffle into some kind of new world. Seems quite silly.

The nostalgia is for the living, and who am I to deny mum that little concession to irrationality, if it helps her cope, and if it has previously helped her cope? Why should I judge the trappings of a Christian grave in the negative, even when I know that mum would normally scoff at such trappings? Don’t we all have our inconsistencies?

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