In the fog, the gravestones are just visible and it is very hard to tell what is real and what is imagination.

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How can something be so bright, so white and so difficult to see? The line between the living and the dead becomes blurred. How is it possible to stand at the graveside of someone long gone, yet who is so present in day to day life?

Last week as I worked on edits for my forthcoming book The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath, I began by asking the question ‘who’ or ‘what’ are the dead? Can they return, and if so what might they want from us, or us from them? In a curious convergence, I was also watching the last episode of the French TV series The Returned (Les Revenants) which was exploring similar ideas. Where do the dead come from and where do they go? Are they any different from the living, and if so, how? In this show, the dead looked just like the living; they loved, they ate, they felt, they laughed. In some cases they were more alive than the numbed-grief of the living. Refreshingly, the dead were not frightening, though there is something a little creepy about seeing a dead person return. They were searching and they longed for something, but were not really quite sure what that might be.

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Longing or yearning is a feature of the living and the dead. The melancholic ache for someone who is gone, that ungraspable presence, the enigma of the finality, the never-can-be-ness of it all. The Returned was ultimately about resolution, letting go but experiencing a continuing presence. In this sense it seemed that the dead have nothing at all to do with silence, although Derrida claims that the dead can only speak if we choose to give them a voice. I am not so sure this is the case. I think the dead can quite happily take their place in our lives alongside us, very much there, very much becoming, by their traces and their objects and their photographs. Our memories and imagination can also leap in and create an overwhelming sense of there-ness so that it is almost like that person has not gone at all. Except of course they have, and that which we grasp onto is the very thing that causes the yearning. When there is no ‘body’ what is left? Perhaps it is a sense of kinship, or as I write in my book, the sense of a two-way door between the living and dead. Plath captures it perfectly in her poem ‘All the Dead Dears’:

All the long gone darlings: they

Get back, though, soon,

Soon: be it by wakes, weddings,

Childbirths or a family barbeque:

Any touch, taste, tang’s

Fit for those outlaws to ride home on,

 

And to sanctuary: usurping the armchair

Between tick

And tack of the clock, until we go,

Each skull-and-crossboned Gulliver

Riddled with ghosts, to lie

Deadlocked with them, taking root as cradles rock.

(1988: 71)

There is no barrier here, but rather a blurry intricacy in which the living and the dead become ‘Deadlocked’ in a sort of two way intersection between life and death. We cannot contain the dead and perhaps neither should we want to, but rather like the priest in The Returned, give them free rein to do what they wish and let them enrich our lives with stories, with memories and with words.

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