The original Grateful Dead. Photo courtesy of the Bowers Museum.
The original Grateful Dead. Photo courtesy of the Bowers Museum.

I See Dead People

Death is all around us this time of year. Walk through the aisles at Sav-On, and a toy skeleton cackles as you pass, reaching out at you with his clattering, plastic fingers and making some horrible pun about being dead. People put up pictures of little cartoon corpses in their windows, fill their suburban lawns with Styrofoam gravestones, and hang dummies by the neck from trees. Zombie children knock on your door, their faces a ghastly gray, dark circles under their eyes, fake blood trickling down their little chins. Our yearly coast-to-coast Monster Mash is all in good fun, obviously, and we're all so used to it that we hardly think about what we're really doing. Corpses, skeletons, buckets of blood . . . 'tis the season! But every now and then, it hits you how grotesque it all is. Every October, we unite to make a joke of death. But deep down, we know that in the end, death will always have the last laugh.

And in this Season of Death, what could be more appropriate than a Saturday afternoon visit with the ancient Egyptians? "Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt," the show currently winding down a two-and-a-half-year run at the Bowers, shows you that no matter how nutty America is about denying death, we're still nowhere near as nutty as the pharaohs of old. They had their organs removed, coated in resin and stored in pretty jars—although they weren't sure what the brain was for, so they sucked it out through the nose and threw it away. Their bodies were swathed in bandages and encased in gold, jewel-encrusted sarcophagi, all so they would look their swankiest for the next world. They believed that life really began in the afterlife, and they approached death with the single-mindedness of a debutante getting ready for her coming-out party.

Their sarcophagi remain undeniably impressive, and we must offer kudos to the British government for giving grants to the grave robbers who brought us this amazing selection of funereal objects. We are treated to the plush furnishings of individual tombs, to their statues of "shabti" (little servants who were supposed to accompany them into eternity), to their amulets and their jars and their death boats. We should all live as good as the Egyptians died. These were people who lived to expire, so they pimped their tombs and went out in style.

But you look at the CAT scans on display next to the mummies—at those fragile little bodies inside those giant coffins—and you're struck by the pathetic deadness of them. For all their attempts to make death dignified and beautiful, beneath all that surface glamour, these tricked-out corpses still end up looking small and gross and sad, as do we all. You can live fast and die young, but there is no such thing as a good-looking corpse.

I've been thinking about death a lot this month. Somebody very close to me recently lost her mother, and I was there the night it happened. A woman I've known for many years, a good woman, gone from us. When something like this happens, you find yourself pondering the same questions that have consumed the bereaved for millennia, probably since before we had the words to ask them aloud: What happens, after we die? Why do people have to die at all? Billions of people before us have asked those questions without arriving at satisfying answers, and it's likely billions more will ask them after we're gone. The only thing any of us knows for sure about death is that we will die, just as our grandparents died, as will our grandchildren.

Perhaps Halloween isn't as crazy as all that. At least putting on fishnets and painting your face to look like a corpse is a hell of a lot cheaper, easier and more fun than building giant pyramids in the middle of the desert. Dressing up like a corpse is really a rather sane way to cope with the insanity of death, with the terrible grief that we know is coming, years, months or hours from now.

So eat brains, drink blood, and be merry. Paint yourself to look like a corpse, and try not to think too hard about the inevitable day when you'll become one for real.


"Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt" at the Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Mondays. Through Dec. 31. $14-$19.






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