Today I have a guest post from author Veronica Cossanteli! She has a new book out called The Halloweeds which is perfect for all of the family!
Veronica grew up in Hampshire and Hong Kong with an assortment of animals, including an imaginary pet dinosaur who slept on her bed. She works in a primary school in Southampton, where she lives with three cats, two snakes, one guinea pig ...
Death – Not Such a Bad Guy
When other children my age were learning the words of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, my mother taught me the Hearse Song:
When you see a hearse go by,
Do you ever think that you will die?
They wrap you up in a long white shirt,
And cover you over with heaps of dirt.
The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out;
They crawl in thin and they crawl out stout...
Growing up in the country with predatory cats, a father given to shooting pigeons out of his bedroom window and a succession of small pets, I was aware, early, that life didn’t last. The proof that this applied to people, not just shrews and birds and guinea pigs, was my great grandmother’s death mask. On rare occasions this would emerge, shrouded in lace, from its drawer. In her day, Nonnina had been beautiful; you could still see it in the wax. Serene and benign, to me it was the face of Mortality.
The Victorians, squeamish about other matters, embraced Death. They made jewellery out of their loved ones’ hair and propped up their corpses for post-mortem family portraits. Even I, with a penchant for the macabre, find these photographs disturbing; it can be difficult to tell which, out of a row of pale, rigid children, is the one that isn’t there.
The Mexican Day of the Dead, with its merry skeletons and air of celebration, is a much more cheerful affair. Once a year, fireworks and marigold petals guide the departed souls home to join their families for a picnic in the cemetery, healing over the wounds of separation.
The Malagasy people take it one step further, bringing the bodies back up into the daylight and dancing with them. And why not? Who says that, just because you’re dead, you have to stop dancing?
Why has our own society become so twitchy about Death?
Part of the problem is that we’re control-freaks. We want schedules and agendas and technology that tells us what’s happening when. We like to feel we’re in charge – but we can’t put Death in the diary. He’s the sort of visitor who turns up on the doorstep, uninvited and without warning, when we haven’t vacuumed for a week and are still in our pyjamas.
And then what? We can arrange to have our physical remains turned into diamonds or frisbees or fired into space, but where does the thinking/dreaming/hoping/fearing part of us go? It’s a question that has occupied the human imagination for a very long time.
Excavation of prehistoric graves has unearthed skeletons strung with beads. Whatever sort of afterlife these early humans believed in, they clearly felt the need to approach it fully accessorized. Through the millennia, departing for the next world has necessitated some serious packing. How could you expect to be taken seriously without your dogs, your horses, your chariot, a few concubines and a good deal of bling? China’s First Emperor famously took an entire army with him. The Ancient Egyptians, worried about hunger pangs, buried their dead with poultry, plucked and oven-ready. (The giblets were sealed into a separate jar, in case the wandering soul had an urge for gravy.)
The bravest Ancient Greeks ended up in the Elysian Fields, where I’ve always pictured them being horribly bored: Homeric hordes of hulking, hairy heroes, with nothing to do for the rest of time but make daisy chains out of asphodel. Viking warriors were luckier; they could look forward to a roistering good time in Valhalla.
The variations on the Afterlife are endless. But not everybody’s willing to trade this world in for the next. In the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk craves immortality (spoiler alert: he doesn’t get it) in a story thread that rings as true today as it did 4000 years ago. We’re still resisting Death. But do we really want to live forever?
I already feel slightly out of place in a world very different to the one I grew up in. If the Grumpy Old Woman in me is stirring after a mere half a century, what sort of querulous old bat would I be at 1000? And I don’t want to miss out. If there really is a three-headed dog guarding the gates to the Underworld, or an Ancient Egyptian croco-potamus-ish thing waiting to devour the hearts of the unworthy, I want to see it.
Preferably not yet. I’m in no hurry to be separated from those I love (two legs or four), from blossom and birdsong and chocolate cake and the endless list of things that make me happy. But it’s not up to me, and that’s OK. I never remember to put things in my diary anyway. If Death arrives unannounced and finds me in my pyjamas – well, I’m guessing he’s used to that.
When he does come, he won’t be wearing a black hood and carrying a scythe. Not my Death. He’ll be wearing a Hawaiian shirt, with pink flamingos, and carrying a guitar.
The Halloweeds by Veronica Conssanteli out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House) Find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com
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Dan promised he'd look after his siblings, but he hadn't bargained on his scientist parents dying on a jungle research trip. The children decamp to crumbling Daundelyon Hall. Horrible Aunt Grusilla reigns supreme, tending her mysterious graveyard garden. But why are Aunt Grusilla and her servants each missing a finger? What are the hungry 'Cabbages' in the greenhouse? As Dan struggles to solve the mystery he encounters one final question: what's the price of everlasting life?
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