Pushcart 2014: Paul Zimmer, “Reliquaries” (non-fiction) from Georgia Review, Winter 2012

reliquary \ ‘re-le-, kwer-e\ n. [Fr reliquaire, from ML reliquaiurium, from reliquia relic + Larium-ary – more at relic]: a casket, shrine, or container for keeping or exhibiting relics (remains, leavings, of a deceased person)

– Webster’s Third New International Unabridged

In 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York brought together a magnificent exhibit called Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437…. The arrival of the exhibit catalog was a significant recent moment in my life. It is a beautifully produced collection of remarkable paintings, illustrated books, alphabet designs, tombstones, sculptures, and sacred objects of all sorts… but I was most struck by its emphasis on reliquaries.

I seem to be relatively immune to the reverence many people display towards dead bodies. I’ve said several times that when I go, it’s fine to toss me in the nearest dumpster; apparently that isn’t allowed, but it reflects my attitude. I felt the need to explain this to my veterinarian recently when she asked what arrangements I wanted made for my cat; I didn’t want her to think I was being callous, but the fact is, once death occurs, I’m just not that interested in what remains, be it me, or my Lucy (though I did keep a puffball of fur blowing around the kitchen floor for several days, like a substitute pet, before I swept it up).

Zimmer unites several vignettes with the theme of our treatment of remains, from historical artifacts created to hold the mummified finger of an apostle, to a box in his Catholic church holding what looked like splinters but, he was assured, were fragments of the shinbone of John the Baptist, to a jar containing the body of his first childhood pet, a turtle, to a more contemporary stone, engraved by his sculptor daughter, marking the back yard resting place of his dog of 17 years.

As it happens, I have some experience with religious reliquaries. For a little over a year I sang with the Portland First Parish Unitarian Church choir; ensconced in the wall near the choir loft is a small urn containing the ashes of Hermann Kotzschmar, organist for 47 years in the 19th century. I thought it was a little creepy, but they’re very proud of it, and it’s considered history (like the cannonball from the Revolutionary War that’s part of the grand chandelier in the sanctuary, also creepy, or at least incongruous). It was even mentioned – mentioned, hey, the explanation thereof got a 30-second track of its own – on the second album of the Longfellow Chorus, home-based in the same church building (I sang with them, too, but earlier). Merrill Auditorium has the Kotzschmar Organ, but First Parish Church has his ashes.

The individual pieces of this mini-collection are charming, held together by that desire to show respect for the dead. I’m all for respecting the dead, but I do think respecting the living takes precedence; if respecting the dead is one way to do that, I shall comply. But, really, you needn’t go to any trouble when the time comes; the nearest dumpster will do fine.


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