When I die please bury me
In a high-top Stetson hat,
Put a 20-dollar gold piece on my watch-chain
So the boys will know I died standing pat.

‘Saint James Infirmary’

A few years ago I was looking at a group of paintings by Poussin in which Death dances to a stately tune, though always with Panic as part of the line-up, and began to realise that the basic beat of the tune – the paintings’ processional language, and even the wildness upsetting the funeral – was borrowed from reliefs of Meleager, Endymion, the Niobids and the rest that Romans had chosen for the sides of their stone coffins. I was in Rome at the time, and the coffins were everywhere. So I found myself standing on the stairs of the Palazzo Mattei, trying to imagine the sensibility behind the solid collision of Mars and Rhea Silvia, and leafing endlessly through the four volumes of Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs devoted to Dionysos. It was a strange world, and in it I thought I might find the clue to Poussin’s paganism. Later on, ways led out to the wider world of death. Things rescued from the Han grave pits – coffins of stone or wood, carved or painted; funeral banners; ritual objects; murdered wives and concubines – seemed a reasonable point of comparison.* Perhaps they would sharpen my sense of what was special to the Romans’ last rites. And somewhere behind the exercise, I now see, was the hope that if I immersed myself deeply enough in the universe of tombstones I would discover that death in faraway places, back at the turn of the world, had been different. That is always the hope.

I came to the subject of ancient sarcophagi, then, as an outsider – much as Poussin did. But a question immediately follows. In what sense did I come to the subject of death, and death’s figuration, as an outsider? The question is anthropological. Is death something that any human animal relates to as an outsider? Or is one defining characteristic of the species precisely a being inside death, or on terms with it, or in intimacy with it; an intimacy that allows it to be represented, and therefore passed into and passed through?

Here are two quotations. The first I encountered in a paper on Han sarcophagi by Wu Hung, and is drawn from Mr Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals, completed in 239 BCE but representing a wisdom from a much more distant past. (Lü Buwei was chancellor in the years before China’s first emperor acceded to the throne. His Annals were produced by scholars summoned to the capital, charged with recording the best of philosophy thus far.)

Burying means hiding away; and that hiding [of the corpse] is from a wish that men should not see it. Hence there are the clothes sufficient for embellishing the body; the coffins all round the clothes [sometimes several, nested one inside the other]; the casket all round the coffins; the earth all round the casket; and a mound further raised over that grave with trees planted on it.

The second is from the Egyptologist Jan Assmann, at the start of his book Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt (2005):

The thesis that underlies this study can be reduced to an extremely simple formula: death is the origin and the centre of culture … When it comes to the importance of death, Egypt is admittedly an extreme example. But this has largely to do with the fact that we view ancient Egypt from the standpoint of a culture that is equally extreme, but in the opposite direction. From the point of view of comparative anthropology, it is we, not the ancient Egyptians, who are the exception. Few cultures in this world exclude death and the dead from their reality as radically as we do. Living with the dead and with death is one of the most normal manifestations of human culture, and it presumably lies at the heart of the stuff of human existence.

Assmann’s judgment on our culture – its being essentially death-denying – is a topos. It crops up everywhere in the literature. The title of Paul Zanker and Björn Christian Ewald’s tremendous book on the Roman material – Mit Mythen leben (2004) – has the challenge to the present built into it, since ‘living with myth’ on the tomb reliefs, they believe, was above all a way for mourners to go on living with death and the corpse. They came back to the coffin at times of festival through the years. They drank and celebrated. The dying Adonis kept death alive for them. From time to time a great stone lid was levered open and a new family member inserted. Grief and pomp were intertwined.

Maybe the idea that death is no longer present among us in anything like this way is one marker (among various linked negatives) of modernity arriving. I would bet that historians could turn up much the same bill of attainder issued by humanists in 15th-century Burgundy or clerics in 17th-century Amsterdam. But the anthropological question remains. Is Assmann right that ‘living with the dead and with death is one of the most normal manifestations of human culture, and … lies at the heart of the stuff of human existence’? I want to answer yes and no. Death, after all, as Lü’s book reminds us, has always presented life with a problem. In simple evolutionary terms, it is dangerous. It smells. It rots. It spreads disease. It is repellent. The human animal draws back from it and wants it sealed off and hidden.

And yet there is an immense, constitutive ambivalence for human beings when they find themselves with other dead members of the species. Pascal Boyer, in his indispensable book Religion Explained (2002), has things to say about this. Different, and largely unconscious, worlds of inference are set in motion, he argues, when the living and the dead confront one another. Corpses are (still) persons. They are people we cannot help treating, at one level, as entities with wishes, fears, awareness, powers over us, subservience to us. We still desire their presence – their regard. And therefore we resent their failure to give it, or dream a reciprocity still lingering on. But corpses (for the hunter-gatherer mind in all of us, which goes into overdrive at such moments) are taboo. Our recoil mechanisms, always on the alert for pollution, are immediately operative; and they are cruel, absolute – one touch of the defiled or contaminated (maybe even one look) will be enough for the disease of death to spread. Surely Freud was right when he said that the terrible excessiveness of human grief over such matters is powered by a primary (maybe unrecognised) recoiling from the corpse, and then guilt at the reflex action.

One way to sum this up – the thought is implicit in Lü’s layer on layer of defences – is to say that death for us humans, whether we look at it or bury it deep, is always something in excess of fact or event. It is a state we imagine, or try to. Some would even have this be a way to draw the line between man and animal. We know that animals fear death, avoid it, fight it off. They too know it is dangerous (they often have a keener nose for putrefaction than we do). Sometimes their grief for a fallen member of the group is palpable. But do they imagine what death consists of? Is it part of their picture of the world? The difficulty in answering such questions – it would be the beginning of an argument with Assmann – derives from the fact that it is hard to be entirely confident that, in contrast to animals, our species does imagine death, if we mean by imagining ‘putting the mind in contact with the object’s specificity’. Is it death we imagine, that is, or always a form of non-death – of death lived, of life in place of non-life?

Humans imagine death in some form – it would be foolish to deny the overwhelming evidence of their doing so – but at the same time their culture is haunted by the knowledge that death is unimaginable, and that its true nature is nothing, or worse than nothing. Death equals beginning to smell bad. Life – so culture knows unconsciously – may not have an opposite at all, just an ending. The very category Death – the making of nothing into something: a terrain, a concept, an object of knowledge, maybe even a person – is one of the species’ consolations.

This is a materialist view. I want to take it, but doing so is hard. I need, as usual, to imagine what materialism with this as its object once was – whom it belonged to. There is a side of me that wants to reach out for a moment and look at death from the position of the tomb robber holding his nose; or even – but here the mind fails – from that of the 21 wives and sex slaves of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, doped and still struggling as they were killed to keep him company.

I draw back from this. Let me suggest instead, as a point of departure, that the immense apparatus the archaeologists have recovered for us – the technologies of sealing, preserving, fixing, narrating, magnifying, mythologising, projecting into the future – has as its driving force the wish to make death a not-nothing. And surely the effort has been successful. But supposing you believe, as I do, that nothing is what death is; and that some such intuition – stopping the nose, putting the thing out of sight – haunts even the most elaborate reaction-formation against it. What follows, in terms of method? How do I find myself looking differently at the objects and structures the experts reveal? Well, simply this: I am struck time and again in the ancient material by the way the non-being of death – its not-to-be-looked-at character – reappears in the very texture of Death’s figuration.

The Han material is full of such things. (All four centuries from 206 BCE to 220 CE are rich, but the tombs early in the dynasty especially so.) The astonishing death banner exhumed from the burial of Marchioness Xin Zhui, in a complex of tombs discovered at Mawangdui, south-east of Luzhou, is a case in point. It was made around 168 BCE. Looked at as a whole, the banner – it was placed face down on top of the coffin, as if the corpse were to use it as a guide to future transformations – traces the story of a pneumatic, alchemical voyage upwards, through the coils of a dragon cosmos to a state far beyond death’s immediate ‘scattering of breath’. But for me – I take my cue from a scholar who discusses this material, Eugene Wang – the figures whose presence on the banner goes on attracting my attention are a handful of dead individuals setting out on the journey, along the very first yards of the dragon-tail way. ‘Dishevelled’, Wang calls them. Possessed of an unkempt pathos. (Melon seeds in Xin Zhui’s body cavity suggest she was treated for tuberculosis.) The words ‘raffishness’ or even ‘scruffiness’ occur to me as I look at the figures; and I admire the scruffiness, because it seems to me still in touch with death’s mere-ness and furtiveness. And I wonder at the complex bargain struck between painter and marchioness, in which part of her eternal staring upward at the map of the afterlife involved the reminder – the vivid insistence – of the breathlessness of her last days on earth.

I look at the carved stone lid of the great sarcophagus that once held the remains of Wang Hui, an accounts clerk in one of the Han Empire’s frontier zones. (The writing on the coffin says it was finished in 221 CE.) All four sides of the sarcophagus, as far as experts understand them, are fired by a wish to make the accountant’s death fully part of the cosmos: dragons and tigers mark the cardinal points of the compass, and a half-opened door issues onto something we mortals shall never see. A young handmaid of the Mother Queen of the West holds it permanently ajar. These things are spellbinding, but it is the lid that I go on staring at – and in particular the overweening shape taken by a great (useless) stone knocker. Lillian Tseng is suitably cautious. It is a zoomorphic mask, she thinks, ‘distinguished by its big eyes, wide-open mouth, and strong clutches’. ‘Quite intimidating,’ she adds. I agree. And for me the intimidation has to do with the way the stone creature-face refuses to settle down into any of the categories for otherness that the human world – and particularly the human world of death – has to offer. These are many. I find that in my notes I unthinkingly made it a ‘monster’. But that is wrong. The idea of ‘monster’ moves the being, or non-being, on the lid into a space of threat and abnormality (a space where the hero might still be victorious). No doubt that is where we would like it to be. But the face on the knocker is not atrocious. It does not glare or growl. It can afford to wait.

All of this pales in comparison, be it said, to what happens previously in the terrible death-world of the Warring States. Take the double coffin of Zeng Hou Yi, for example – him of the slaughtered wives and concubines – and in particular take the marquis’s inner coffin, next to his closely wrapped corpse, done in red and black lacquer enriched with touches of yellow oil. The box’s surface teems with snakes. We are deep into death’s first iconography here – the coffin was made in 433 BCE – and even scholars are inclined to be matter of fact about what is at stake. For snakes read worms. No doubt the hybrid creatures struggling in the spaces left over from the worms’ turning are meant to signify a fight against the agents of decomposition. The bronze core of the coffin, and its hardwood beams and panels, and the twisted ropes all round it, and the cinnabar inside: they all do their best. But it is not clear that this was a culture confident that the fight was winnable. Or if it was, then the victory could only be gained by giving full rein, here on the sides of the container, to the worst imagining of pollution. The snakes asphyxiate the surfaces they fill. They writhe and bleed. One feels their sliminess under the fingers. I find myself thinking – maybe remembering the horror of the medieval transi – that what I am looking at is a cadaver opened by a knife, revealing the activity within.

Which leads me finally back to Rome. Nothing about the Chinese material, awe-inspiring as it is, quite displaces the sarcophagi made in the later Roman Empire from the special place they have in history. Some of us go on believing that what happened in Rome during the second, third and fourth centuries – the end of paganism and the establishment of Christianity as a state religion – put its stamp on the frame of understanding we still inhabit. The why and how of the transformation are a puzzle. If Assmann is right, and living with death ‘lies at the heart … of human existence’, then presumably the story told by the sarcophagi – Björn Christian Ewald has counted between twelve and fifteen thousand of them surviving in the wider Roman world – should be one clue to the world-historical change.

Perhaps it is. But the more I have got to know the Roman tombs, the more the paganism-and-Christianity question has been displaced, or reframed, by another: a sense that came on me, as I took the measure of the objects’ imagery and visual language, of the sheer strangeness of what they show, if one puts it in the context of the normal material culture of death through the ages. They are not like coffins before or since. It is particularly the first strong surge of sarcophagi production, starting in the middle of the second century and lasting for 40 years or so, that leaps out of the historical sequence. There is a sudden rush of objects, with the scale and intensity of their craftsmanship owing little or nothing to Roman funerary precedent; and the rush happens in a way that suggests a whole workshop apparatus – a specialised market – set up in less than two decades. Death and marble become inseparable, and for a while (till the murder of Commodus, say) an extraordinary diversity of possible stories and modes of figuration seems possible. The whole phenomenon of the sarcophagi – though here historians fall to arguing – fails to make proper sense unless there was some kind of opening-out, in the years after 140 CE, of the Death-imagining (Death-monumentalising) classes. Not a total re-constellation of the funerary elite – the old senatorial families held aloof from the fashion, and in any case we have no way of safely counting the number of coffins ordered decade by decade – but surely a slight and decisive expansion of it. Large-scale builders and bakers, brokers and contractors, producers of military and household hardware, ship chandlers, real-estate dealers, stagers and financiers of public spectacles: creatures of a complex trading empire. They wanted their bodies encased in myth. We should maybe avoid the words ‘middle’ or ‘middling’ for the new customers – they were part of a still minuscule upper crust – and borrow a term from the Han bureaucracy: like Wang Hui the accounts clerk, these were ‘hundred bushel people’. (The sum appears in the records as Wang Hui’s allotment of grain per year: a low-end salary, but one that established him firmly as part of the state.)

The new Romans’ coffins are incomparable: that is what I want to insist on. Of course Lü’s imperative rules: the massive basins and lids of the containers were intended to seal off the body and help it rot away at full speed: the word ‘sarcophagus’ spells out the flesh-eating properties (it was hoped) of the marble. But on the sarcophagus’s side was figured – strongly, insistently, at full rhetorical volume – life. Gods and heroes loved and conquered. Phaedra lusted after Hippolytus, Selene revisited the sleeping Endymion. It may be that sometimes the scenes chosen from the mythological repertoire hinted at the idea of existence continuing after death, but in Rome the eschatology never seems strong. What has Phaedra to do with the realm of the spirit? There are no journeys through the cosmos on the coffins – only an occasional zodiac or half-open door. And the stories depicted, at least in the first late Antonine decades (we are, I think, at the heart of the new objects’ anomalousness here), have a central, repeated place for the representation of death as it occurs in life … as it appears ordinarily, in the home, on the deathbed. Dishevelment and pain are part of the picture. Death on the coffins is regularly – of course, not always – a family matter, occurring among intimates tearing their hair; something that happens to the dying as we look, and at the same time to those who ‘live with death’ in the most literal sense: the carers, the mourners, the inconsolable. Stoic impassivity is in short supply. In the deathbed scene of Meleager now in the Louvre (done around 190 ce), which meant so much to artists from Nicola Pisano on, a young woman leans over the huntsman’s wrecked body and seems to be squeezing the dust of a poppy under his nose. (This is Richard Neer’s suggestion.) We should never lose hold of how unprecedented, and without progeny, this iconography is. For what is death doing at all on the side of a coffin? Death figured not in the form of a spirit or skeleton or cosmological journey, but as an event in the here and now. Pain, breathlessness, slackening, narcosis. Women trying one last remedy. There is no mystery to the fact that normally – functionally – death is what tomb sculpture exists not to show.

The intrusion of death on the sides of sarcophagi does not last. It is over by the end of the second century. Dionysos and the Nereids crowd out the competition. Real mass production – standardised set-ups, garlands and seasons, strigillated panels in easily varied arrangements – takes over. Myth eventually gives way (in the late 200s) overwhelmingly to pastoral – a sign of the pagan tapestry unravelling. Shepherds tend flocks, huntsmen seem in no danger. The stage of emotion is emptied, ready for the arrival of the saints. And it was never the case, even in the golden age of the workshops, that deathbed scenes were dominant numerically. Or, in a sense, experientially. No doubt the whole mythological setting of Meleager’s or Adonis’s death worked to put the event of dying at a distance, to inflate and aggrandise it, to convert even this ending into passage. Scholars better attuned to the language of the sarcophagi than I am will insist that we enter into our reading of the relief’s death episodes the unique figural density of the surfaces all round it, the whole crowded processional panel. The density – and density is what is most characteristically Roman about the sculpture – is, if you like, life once again asserting itself and making death part of its continuum.

Nonetheless, I look again at the Vatican’s slaughter of the Niobids, or Creusa in agony on the astounding sarcophagus in Basel, or Orestes, or Protesilaus, or Alcestis, or Patroclus, and the fact that death occurs at all on the side of a coffin, taking the form of loss and grief, still strikes me as stupendous. It is a phenomenon of lateness, I guess – of the beginning of the disintegration of an ideological world. The nexus of paganism releases its strongest and strangest recognition of worldliness – the very recognition that makes it unique as an episode in history – just as other-worldliness begins to overtake it.

Which leads to a last question. Is there a way in which the Roman and Chinese materials truly belong together historically, as more than convenient foils? Wu Hung, when he lays out the themes and variations in the Han material, intimates that there may be. It was in Rome and China at just this period, he says, during the four or five centuries on either side of 1 BCE, that there came into being the main lines – the underlying imagery – of the ideological world that so many of us still belong to. On the one hand, the arrival of Taoism and Buddhism in their international, theologised forms; and on the other, paganism giving way to Christianity. We are looking at the moment of emergence – of first elaboration – of the other-worldly, after-worldly imagining of death that remains common wisdom. Could we say, then, that the brief and exceptional episode of the sarcophagi in Rome – the appearance of the reality called dying within the realm of death – was an anomaly made possible by the fact of this turning, this coming to an end? ‘Haunters of tombs’, a pagan called Christians at the time. Meaning, I think, that he felt they were men and women who had too much oriented their lives on death, spending their time looking gloomily (exultantly) at skulls. They lived with death too imaginatively: their intimacy with it was cloying. Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod. Look at my Meleager, by contrast. (The wholesaler turns to his tomb.) Nothing awaits him. He has no idea what is happening as death comes on. None of his life has been spent preparing for it. He sniffs the poppy and ceases. And that is his glory.

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