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Seeking Beauty in the Macabre

A new perspective on why death can be beautiful.

Lying on the brink of death in Rome, John Keats penned the following words to his devoted companion Joseph Severn, a young artist and dear friend who had accompanied him to what would soon become his death place:

“I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave / thank God for the quiet grave / O! I can feel the cold earth upon me / the daisies growing over me / O for this quiet / it will be my first.”

Considered by the contemporary mind – one which has become largely unconcerned with, or perhaps even repulsed by, the notion of the macabre compared with the minds of the Romantic poets, this seeming profession of love to his impending death seems curious. It forces us to consider the object of Keats’ pleasure in this isolated moment. Is it merely a thought of madness in his by this point tuberculosis-wrought mind? Or is there something more poignant here – a certain pleasure in the placidity of the grave, a curiosity surrounding the fate of mortals after that mortality has come to fruition, or simply a state of peace with human fate?

Portrait of John Keats Credit: Flickr

Finding pleasure in the macabre can be perceived as any one of these, a combination, or as something else entirely.

When we talk of the macabre, we are making an often inadvertent reference to the medieval allegorical notion of the Danse Macabre: the idea which encompasses the universality and non-discriminatory nature of death. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, we are also making reference to the “grim, horrific, (and) repulsive” nature of the artistic manifestations of this allegory. In the modern linguistic context, this definition has stretched to comprise the very notion of death itself. So, given these bleak descriptions, how is it that so many – including myself – are still able to find beauty in such a thing?

I became acquainted with the idea of death in early childhood, having fond memories of wandering around graveyards with my father in the villages of the Lincolnshire wolds in England. This adoration for places of rest has continued into adulthood; for example, Eastern Cemetery in St Andrews has become one of the dearest places to me in the town. I’m slowly compiling a list of graves I have hopes of visiting in the future; on it lie those of Keats and Plath, among those of other literary figures. Some will certainly take aversion to this kind of dark tourism, believing that it is raising death and suffering on a pedestal.

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However, for me, graveyards are not places entirely laden with grief and misery. Nor are they places entirely filled with joy and complete peace. They are simply places that are. I perceive them to be natural etchings into the landscape; as death is inseparable from life, so graveyards are inseparable from the environment. In this naturalness is an innate beauty. I can perceive this in the monuments to life often erected in these spaces. I see beauty in the most grandiose of headstones, adorned with minute detail and standing at twice the height of myself, but I also see it in the austere simplicity of the stones pressed into the earth which bear solely the initials of the departed.

I have a special love for graveyards whose history is vast and long. These graveyards in particular are, ironically, extenders of life and deniers of ephemerality. They keep alive the existence of people long forgotten, lost to time. It is such a thought, when I stumble upon a grave dating back to the 1800s, that I may be the first in over 200 years to bear that person any consideration. It certainly arouses the philosophical debate of what it means to exist: when the final one to remember a person dies themselves, what becomes of the original departed? Do they simply cease to exist?

In my opinion, graveyards make this not so. They are literature in stone, preserving tales until they themselves become weathered, crumble, return to the earth. They allow the dead to experience a second beauty, be this an aesthetically striking monument, or, as Keats imagined, a blanket of daisies.

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