Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A City of Death

I landed in London on July 6 with one stuffed suitcase, two extra heavy carry-on bags, and a scapular around my neck. “Wear a scapular,” said Joe, my ex-housemate who plans to enter the seminary post graduation. Anxious about lofting 30,000 miles over the Atlantic for six hours in a narrow, plastic tube, I went home and ruffled through the collection of scapulars I had accumulated from both of my Italian grandmothers that had remained untouched, and unwanted, until now. I picked a red scapular out from the tangle of brown strands; the Passion scapular, as it is known, had more intricate images on its panels and also had scripted on it a brief plea for protection. I’m not sure if I believe that scapulars will save their wearers from purgatory as does my housemate Joe, but I was certainly willing to subscribe to a divine protection plan and hope for the best.

When I entered the London airport, I was equal parts exhausted by my overnight flight and surprised to have made it there in one piece. (Twenty-first-century technology is great, but there is something uncomfortably superhuman about crossing an ocean in the span of a day.) Taking off the scapular then felt wrong, as if I was thankful to have made it thus far but simply didn’t need help any longer. Largely because removing the necklace was ethically cloudy for me, I kept the scapular on for as long as I could, even as one panel fell off, even as the string became jaded, tangled and worn, until the second panel fell off and there was nothing holding the thin red fabric together anymore. In truth, in a way that I hadn’t foreseen on my first London morning, death would haunt me throughout my stay, both conceptually and practically, making me yearn for the protection of the necklace even after my feet were well grounded on London stone. On my class’s first foray into the city at the British Museum, I found myself in front of the oldest surviving corpse, a shriveled up man lying in fetal position with blackened skin and a few wisps of red hair. “You can carefully preserve a corpse with oils and mummification, or you can just throw it in the desert and let it happen naturally” read the somewhat sardonic sign next to the display. The man looked small and frail and utterly defenseless in his nudity. “This is what will become of all of us,” I couldn’t help thinking as I stared at him, fingering the holy thing around my neck.

Throughout my exploration of London, the theme of immortality continued: I toured Westminster literally stepping over tomb after tomb, countless graves lying under my feet while the more prestigious souls rose up to form actual monuments in the chapel. The Museum of London commemorated the many tragedies that took lives in London, in the form of fire and plague. On the “Jack the Ripper” tour, we saw the places Jack’s victims were last seen, and, at particularly poignant moments, treaded on the corners, rested on the benches where their bodies had turned up, destroyed as if by some ferocious monster. It seemed only fitting for one of our last excursions to be Highgate Cemetery, where 169,000 dead people rested in everything from million-dollar memorials to half-upturned tombs, which didn’t seem to be too far a stretch from the preservation methods taken for the British Museum corpse. "August 4, 1856" read one of the above-ground tombs on the lot. It was unnerving to be passing the tomb on the fourth of August, nearly 150 years later.

The threat of death menaced my stay in London well beyond the vein of ancient corpses. I spent the night of August 8th sitting in the Three Kings pub, watching riots in the city with the bartenders and loyal customers well beyond closing time, gasping with them behind the bar’s locked doors and closed curtains, horrified at the television footage in front of us. As we theorized together about why the groups of “disaffected youths” were destroying their neighborhoods, the videos of flames engulfing entire buildings reminded me of the Great Fire of 1666. “Why wouldn’t the city take precautions to make buildings less flammable, after all of London’s fires?” I wondered aloud. Trix, the bartender and the only one in the room to acknowledge my statement, just shrugged and turned back to the television. They knew as well I that fire burns now just as it did in 1666.

My experience in London has been characterized by difference: people here speak in an elongated accent, they ride motorized scooters around town, they hang out at pubs after work, they survive on fare that almost entirely lacks vegetables and they wear cheap suits to work almost regardless of their actual profession. Yet, the fundamentals of human life are still the same. As Christopher King, our tour guide of Syon Park, noted during my interview with him, “People think you can’t learn from the past but, in reality, very little about humans has changed.” It’s true. People still take pains to preserve their loved ones. Socioeconomic struggle still causes unrest. Fire still burns. Greed, strife, hope, recovery thrive in this city where cycles of rebirth yield the future and life is ultimately trumped by death.

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