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Spring 2007

Rites of Departure

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Bert Keizer

People rather boldly assert that, in cases of severe dementia, we are witnessing the premature departure of a person's soul. That's quite a statement, and metaphorically not such a bad description of what happens. But unlike the true departure of a soul from a body (assuming such egress to be feasible), this one is not surrounded by rites.

By "rite," I do not just mean an absorption of these events into a religious myth, where they are allotted their particular role in an already existing narrative. No, any protective coloring lent to the horrible process of dementia will do. It is only thus, with the monster masked and presented incognito, that the whole thing can be re-enacted, this time on a consolingly symbolic stage, where blood only flows in a metaphorical sense.

Rites tend to be born in situations which recur, and in which humans are faced with a crushing sense of powerlessness, not knowing whether they should opt for fight or flight. The most obvious example is death. Dementia is not as ancient as death—we hardly know it yet, not the way we know death-and the dilemma between fight or flight doesn't really arise. We have decided on fight. Science is going to help us out, we hope.

Konrad Lorenz was the first ethologist to describe the phenomenon called "displacement," which occurs in animals who do not know whether to attack or to run. Some patterns of animal behavior are fixed in the brain. When the animal is offered the right stimulus, the behavior unrolls—plays itself, just like an old-fashioned record. In some situations the stimulus with which the animal is presented engenders a dilemma when it comes to choosing the "right" behavior. A threatening opponent may give rise to counterthreats, or, alternatively, to running away.

Sometimes Lorenz noticed a strange phenomenon during aggression. Two cocks are fiercely threatening each other on the edge of their territory, and suddenly the threats are abandoned and one of them starts pecking fiercely on the ground at imaginary grains of food. Lorenz explains this by assuming that in the animal's brain, where the behavior is being played from a track laid down earlier in life, the needle suddenly jumps to a different track, and that other track may be pecking grains.

The same happens to people when they feel slightly threatened or embarrassed and don't know what sort of behavior to offer in response to the stimuli surrounding them. They defer their choice by balancing a pen, crossing their legs, uncrossing them, fiddling with their hair, picking their nose or ears, etc., etc.—all of them forms of displacement. The queen of all this fretting and fussing is of course smoking, by now as outmoded in certain circles as farting, but one of the most enjoyable ways of not fighting and not running.

Displacement is best seen on TV during talk shows, but you have to turn off the sound, because conversation distracts. For actors, it is almost impossible to fake displacement convincingly. That's why you will rarely be mistaken, when switching on your TV, about the nature of the scene that pops up, as to whether it is real or an act. Fake displacement is acutely agonizing to watch.

It has been suggested that some rites embody a progressive form of displacement: rites as a deferred answer to situations which you cannot fight against and which you cannot fly away from, either. Under such circumstances, a rite offers room for the impulse to do something.

One of the striking things about rites is that we have certain tastes in this area, and that we in the early twenty-first century regard most rites as outdated. Especially around death and dying, we are faced with a ritual embarrassment which is caused by a profound distrust about the life to come, or the humdrum certainty about the absence of same. Old rites for death in one way or another harped on the notion of a journey continued, and that rankles. It almost seems as if, after the thousand encounters with fictional characters posing as death which lie behind us in history, we have at last run into Death himself, and we are dumbstruck, unable to grab hold of a stylish bit of displacement.

Watching old rites (I'm thinking of the Roman Catholic funeral of my mother in 1959), our reaction is isn't it wonderful, yes, but a little absurd, too, and it is hard to enter into the minds of the people who went through those motions earlier. Compare the beautiful requiem to the endearing gesture of nineteenth-century Inuit, who, after the death of a child, would kill a dog to guide the young and inexperienced soul in the dark regions beyond the grave. Endearing? Yes, but nowadays no sane family would sacrifice its devoted collie under such circumstances. It wouldn't be moving at all—it would be plainly awful.

Rites come and go, but they cannot be manufactured; you cannot make up a rite. At least, this is what I always thought. But human remains are nowadays subjected to a number of outlandish procedures which the performers most certainly do experience as ritual. A little while ago I attended a funeral where the relatives had decided on homemade gestures for their final goodbye. I was standing with the other mourners near the entrance of the cemetery, and we commiserated in mute despair about the suicide of the young colleague we were going to bury that day: he was forty-two, the father of a boy of three and a girl of six. As I was waiting for the sound of the black hearse rolling slowly past us with its characteristic sound of crunching pebbles under the tires, my eye was caught by a woman riding a bicycle, to which had been attached a two-wheeled cart carrying a brightly colored coffin. I was taken aback at first, not realizing what I was looking at, and then when it slowly got to me, I was in for a further shock: on top of the coffin, the dead man's little boy sat playing at "driving a car."

The whole scene struck me as a desperate attempt at saying "Howdy!" to Death, whom I happen to know as a gentleman of the Old School, who likes to keep his distance. I'm afraid this type of familiarity can breed contempt, this time the other way round, and Fate might even be tempted to exact a measure of vengeance as a compensation for such gross behavior. We're merely humans, after all, and should know our place.

Yet my repulsion only shows what kind of rite pleases me, and doesn't say anything about the "quality" of the cart in comparison with the hearse. It's a matter of taste. People act in the most bizarre ways when faced with an embarrassing situation, and is there anything more embarrassing than a corpse?

Alzheimer's patients in their last stages offer a devastating spectacle, but we do not discern enough fatality in the condition to act ritually. At a funeral, there is no room for a scientist who attends under the motto: "We're going to do something about this." But it's a different thing in dementia. Fate still reigns supreme in this unwinding of our brain, during which the soul may indeed be said to depart, but we refuse to abandon ourselves to the resignation that would call for a rite.

Bert Keizer works at a chronic care facility in Amsterdam. He is the author of works about Wittgenstein, Alzheimer's, and death.

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