Back to School

I was looking through old posts of mine and came across an entry from 2009. My grandmother had just died, and since it took me so long to process that event, I wrote about it with questions I thought mattered. Would I cry, would I start feeling sad, etc? Turns out that I wouldn’t feel anything until the burial. Carrying her body in a pine box, feeling the weight in my hands and shoulder, I finally lost it and cried. Since that day, dead bodies have carried an existential weight that little else has. While I study death, work in the death profession and have a certain affinity for the morbid and bleak, dead bodies continually make me uneasy. Not their presence, but lack thereof, so to speak.

I attended my first non-Jewish funeral not too long ago and felt the existential weight that I first felt in 2009. The body in the overpriced casket was there, it looked like Fred (not their real name), it “was” Fred, but it wasn’t Fred. This must come across as rather elementary philosophical enquiry, but the status of the dead won’t stop unnerving me. Where did the essence of the person go? How is this body Fred and not Fred at the same time? It’s Theseus’ ship with everything remaining but the captain at the helm. It was Malinowski who said of death:

The testimony of the senses, the gruesome decomposition of the corpse, the visible disappearance of the personality—certain apparently instinctive suggestions of fear and horror seem to threaten man at all stages of culture with some idea of annihilation, with some hidden fears and forebodings.

As I attend more death positive events, funeral conventions, Death Café’s, and interact with people to whom death acceptance is a prerogative, my feelings of unease about dead bodies is beginning to feel problematic. I have trouble reconciling my interest in death, and the work I do within its world, with my fear and philosophical bafflement.

I am a religion scholar because I am not religious. I have a need to understand in whatever limited way what drives people of ‘faith’. What makes people pray, give their lives over to something other than themselves, etc. Let us ignore the inevitable trap that is defining religion. Maybe I study death because I need to understand it, and understand the people who feel they understand it.

The other striking section of my earlier post was this goal I listed:

“Go back to school in January! I am going to make an appointment with Concordia this week and do everything I can possibly do to make it back to school.”

In 2007-2008 I was kicked out of university. I failed most of my courses, and after a brief stint on probation, I was given the boot. I took a year off, went tree planting, and eventually begged my way back. I always wanted to argue for a living, and religious studies eventually provided me with that outlet.

This summer I won an Ontario Graduate Scholarship for the upcoming school year. It is a fellowship with a stipend, and is awarded to students with outstanding grades. My first thought went back to when I received a letter telling me that I was no longer welcome at Concordia. I struggled throughout my entire life in school. I failed math every semester in high school, dropped out of Cegep after 4 years, and generally did not give a shit about education. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and even if I did, school was not a good fit for me. Yet I always wanted to be where I am today, but could never muster the motivation to do so. Even today, as a student with good grades, conference presentations, and published papers under my belt, I struggle to write, struggle to read, and feel a sense of crippling doubt. The difference, I guess, is that I am less inclined to give up.

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