At the Grave We Make our Song

By Kelly Foster

I have had three or four truly excellent teachers in my life—teachers who not only made lights come on for me, but who challenged and pushed me so far beyond boundaries that were previously comfortable that I was never able to return.

David Miller of Mississippi College was one of those teachers for me.

When I spent a year teaching at MC, I even opted to take advantage of the freedom to audit courses for free and sat in on several of his classes, including a pedagogical practicum of sorts designed to help high school literature teachers incorporate best practices into their existing classrooms.

One of the most memorable days from that two-week intensive class was the day we tackled the age-old complaint of teenagers everywhere: the complaint about symbolism.

I can remember making it myself once as a teenager. Did the authors really mean to include those symbols we were forced to memorize?!

“So what that Jim Conklin’s initials are J.C.? Does that necessarily make him a Christ figure?”

“Why does it matter how the townspeople perceived Hester’s A?”

“The red moon hung in the sky like a wafer. Why does it have to symbolize a communion wafer? Why can’t a wafer just be a wafer, for crying out loud?”

In order to defend this analysis of the figurative, or at the very least to broaden this practice of thinking symbolically, David appealed to the Old Testament, to the Garden of Eden itself. He said that learning to think figuratively may have been the one gift of the fall.

The serpent comes to Eve in the garden. He brings her attention to the lushness of the fruit. She demurs, noting the divine mandate against eating of this tree. And then the guileful serpent urges these five words, “Ye shall not surely die.”

Ye shall not surely die.

And to be fair, from a literal perspective, he was telling the truth. She did not immediately drop dead, as she feared. That was true.

But what she learns is what the devil did not say: that there are so many other ways to die than dropping dead, and that the dread proceeding from that first bite was just the beginning of all the varied deaths she would come soon to know—little deaths uncalculated and large deaths, unrelenting.

That was what Eve came to know, and that is, I think, what we all fear.

Speaking of the coming of Christ, the writer of Hebrews captures this so aptly: “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He himself likewise partook of the same, that through death he might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”

Let me be specific here. I do not think most of us are so terribly motivated by our fear of a physical death. Physical death is, of course, irrevocable and justifiably occasions its own kind of terror and respect.

But I think if what the writer of Hebrews was merely speaking of was a literal death and we were all subject only to that, we would none of us set foot from our houses without helmets and suits of armor to defend us against the unknown.

We are not enslaved merely to our fear of physical death—that’s part of it, of course, but only that. We are enslaved, rather, by our fear of wrong choices, by our fear of future deserts, by our fear of tedium or of misplaced loves. We are afraid of failure. We are afraid of walking unseen and unmoored throughout our lives. We are afraid of wasted time. We are afraid of loneliness. We are afraid of guilt. We are afraid of how deeply we will grieve the deaths of those we love, literal, figurative, and otherwise.

We are afraid.

Because we know what Eve did not yet know. We know how it feels to die, over and over and over again.

I remember feeling some kind of resonance, even as a freshman in college, when I first read these words of Sylvia Plath’s: “Dying / is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.”

Or these words of Kerouac from Tristessa, which I also read during freshman year: “Born to die, BORN TO DIE. I could write it on the wall and on walls across America.”

So we are. Born to die. Figuratively. Literally.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

And yet, somehow we sing. Somehow we continue to laugh. Somehow we keep trying to love each other, clumsily, badly, at times and then lyrically, supernaturally, at others. Children continue to be born and those of us who love them continue to have to learn to let them go. And so it continues. Again and again and again.

For years, I kept a quote from the Book of Common Prayer affixed to my mirror: “All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Alleluia, indeed. Alleluia.

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.