Being shown the world through the eyes of thoughtful people who are keen travelers and also engaging writers is a big treat to someone who doesn’t travel (me). Near the Exit: Travels with the Not So-Grim Reaper is a wonderful read and a thought-provoking discussion of death and death rituals.
As a huge fan of the movie Coco, I really enjoyed visiting the largest annual Day of the Dead celebration in Chicago with Erickson. Likewise, ancient Egyptian sites; nursing homes; the New Zealand Maori; Aztecs and Mayan ruins; funeral homes; the spiritual center in Crestone, Colorado; Assisi; and the Sacred Stone Circle at Harvest Preserve in Iowa City were each, in their way, fascinating destinations for conversations about death. After reading this book, I think I may be able to react to nursing homes with more peace and grace.
My favorite section of book is near the end, when Erickson describes what she saw at Eremo delle Carceri (a hermitage overlooking Assisi):
Just outside the building is a statue of Francis that’s the happiest depiction of a saint I’ve ever seen. It shows him lying on the ground, his hands behind his head, his sandals kicked off and ankles crossed, a contented smile on his face. Christianity might produce more saints if we pictured them like this, rather than carrying the tools of their martyrdom.
Erickson goes on to say:
When it came time for him to die, he wanted them (his brothers) to place his naked body on the ground, not long, just about the length of time it took someone to walk a mile. . . . maybe he knew that after his death his bones—and his message—would become the property of the church, which would inevitably try to corral and domesticate the wild spirit he’d unleashed. Before that happened, he would have one last moment of communion with the earth he loved so much. It is said when Francis died, a chorus of larks wheeled and swooped above him for a long time, singing him home.
I’m not sure why that passage is so appealing. Maybe because it shows such a vibrant, living membrane between the spiritual and the physical–which is, indeed, something I sometimes, in lucky moments, feel.
Humans are apparently the only one of God’s creatures who grapple with their own mortality. In Near the Exit, Erickson shows us a way to circle closely to the inevitable and look at it without too much unease.