After my father died in 2020, I began to have dreams about him returning from the dead. Sometimes we found a way to revive him. Sometimes it turned out he hadn’t been dead at all. I once dreamed we had buried him by mistake, and I had to dig him up again. My brother and sister also had such dreams. Sometimes our father came back younger and healthier. Other times he gave us advice or chastised us for disappointing him.
Sometimes, walking around our small farm at twilight, I imagined meeting my dead father returned from the grave to saunter through the walnut grove. This prospect did not bother me. It bothered me more to think of him trapped in a wooden coffin in a concrete vault deep underground. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return, the priest tells us on Ash Wednesday, but how can a body return to the earth when locked in unyielding stone?
Thinking about bodies in vaults reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe’s terror of being buried alive. He wove his fear through his stories, and it became associated with a general dread of premature burial, or “taphophobia,” common in the 19th century. This fearfulness can’t be written off as pathological. The combination of medical uncertainty and hurried burials following epidemics made it a legitimate danger, but the popular imagination blew it out of proportion. The invention of “safety coffins,” equipped with devices like air tubes, bells and flags, was a response to this.
Bodies buried in contemporary cemeteries have little hope of escaping, whether as revenants come for one final conversation or as Victorian escapees from hasty interments. Are we terrified that such dead will get out and walk among us, that we will have to confront them again and relive the mistakes we made? Perhaps we are afraid we cannot get it right this time — we can never get it right no matter how often we try. Perhaps we are terrified of this reminder of our own mortality. Yet we also long for one last chance, one final meeting.
There is an image from classical literature that sticks with me. Near the end of “The Iliad,” the hero Achilleus encounters the ghost of his beloved Patroklos, killed in battle. Patroklos tells Achilleus that he has been unable to enter the underworld, because his body has not had the proper funeral rites. Achilleus agrees to perform the burial, then implores Patroklos to come closer:
“…and let us, if only for a little,
embrace, and take full satisfaction from the dirge of sorrow.”
But when he reaches for Patroklos, he vanishes.
In “The Odyssey,” when Odysseus meets his dead mother in the underworld, this motif is repeated. Three times the hero tries to embrace her, and three times clasps only air. A few hundred years later, the Roman poet Virgil drew on this scene when describing the hero’s encounter with the shade of his dead wife in ruined Troy:
“Three times I tried to embrace her and to hold her;
Three times the image, clasped in vain, escaped
As if it were a breeze or on the wings
Of a vanishing dream.”
This image of trying, and failing to embrace the beloved dead is not simply a classical trope. Dreaming about meeting a dead loved one can be a way of processing loss, guilt, anger. In “Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach,” psychologist G. William Domhoff categorizes dreams about meeting the dead among several other “typical dreams,” such as dreams of flying or of being inappropriately dressed. Domhoff references a 1992 UNC study of dream diaries which identifies 39% of all “back to life” dreams as occurring in the period shortly after the loved one’s death. In one entry, a woman dreams that her recently dead grandmother has come to visit her:
“I say, ‘Oh, you’ve come back to me,’ and she says ‘Yes, we are going to try it again and see if I live this time.’ Suddenly she collapses on the bathroom floor. I try to revive her, but I can’t. I am panic-stricken and scream, ‘You can’t die, I have to do this right this time.’”
But the classical epics remind us that even without a concrete vault, the wall between us and the dead is unpassable. Try to touch them, and they melt into the air.
The Feast of All Souls can provoke complicated emotions as we attempt to process and name the ways we relate to our beloved dead. The Catholic Church teaches that all are united in one church, in the communion of saints living and dead. But what does it mean to be united with the dead? Once they are gone we hear no word from them and can meet them only in memory — one reason being, for some ancient cultures, the immortality bestowed by great deeds recorded in legend was so important. Once the shade has vanished, memory is all we have.
Pondering our closeness with the dead means pondering our own mortality, realizing that the “undiscovered country” to which they’ve gone is where we too will go. The Christian tradition tells us what to believe about that undiscovered country, but for most of us, belief is weighted with questions. That no one returns to tell us what we’re headed for makes these questions heavier. All we know for certain is that we die.
Pondering our closeness with the dead means pondering our own mortality, realizing that the “undiscovered country” to which they’ve gone is where we too will go.
Recently we have come up with creative ways of caring for the bodies of the dead. Not everyone ends up in a concrete vault. Some of us end as ash. There are also options for being composted, or turned into a tree, or even pressed into diamonds and made into jewelry. Unlike Poe and his contemporaries, we have little reason to fear being buried alive, so we probably won’t be ordering patented “safety coffins.”
I would like to believe that, as we explore different possibilities for burial rituals, we will also become more honest about our own communion and kinship with the dead. This may mean learning how to wrap up the unfinished business and say the unspoken words that lie between us and those we love. It may mean learning to acknowledge our mortality in healthy ways. Like Achilleus, we cannot embrace our departed loved ones, but we can honor our communion with them, keep their memories alive, pray for their repose and live in such a way that our own memories may be a blessing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a writer and academic residing in rural Ohio. She is the digital editor for U.S. Catholic magazine, and can be found at rebeccabrattenweiss.com.