Calm Dwellings


As she continued, Miss Martineau very easily could have been discussing the intellectual malaise of many twentieth-century men and women: “Such persons can meet nothing congenial with their emotions in any cemeteries that I know of; and they must feel doubly desolate when, as bereaved mourners, they walk through rows of inscriptions which all breathe more than hope, certainty of renewed life and intercourse, under circumstances which seem to be reckoned on as ascertained. How strange it must be to such to read of the trumpet and the clouds, of the tribunal and the choirs of the saints, as literal realities, expected like the next morning’s sunrise, and awaited as undoubtedly as the stroke of death, while they are sending their thoughts abroad meekly, anxiously, imploringly, through the universe, and diving into the deepest abysses of their own spirits to find a restingplace for their timid hopes! For such there is little sympathy anywhere, and something very like mockery in the language of the tombs.”

Miss Martineau’s “mockery in the language of the tombs” became a common reality much sooner than even she probably had expected.

Now we have our drive-in funeral parlor. We have our special place for people to die—the hospital— far from the inefficient world of home. We have a new and growing profession of “specially trained companions” to comfort the dying in their waning hours; after all, since it is increasingly observed in hospitals and rest homes that families now tend to absent themselves from the bedside when the death of a relative is seen drawing near, “common decency” requires that someone be on hand. We have our children, shielded from death for as long as possibleeven into adulthood, where their own capacity for denial takes over. We have our cemeteries, as often as not flat, grassy lawns with almost no visible evidence of the names or family relationships or special qualities of those who are interred beneath. And so today, when all those forces that were first emerging early in the nineteenth century have established themselves as the everyday realities of the American way of life—but without the overpowering spiritual transcendence that was the romantics’ crucial hedge against them—we have the American way of death that the writers of that period most feared: death among strangers, death in loneliness and often in despair with the recognition that the individual has merely come to the end of a brief and unimportant sojourn through his one and only life.