Don’t Hang with the Dead

There is an old Masonic cemetery in Virginia City, Nevada, with gravestones dating back to the first residents of this mining town. Around many of the burial plots are wrought iron fences, most no more than three feet high. They are gated and of ornate design common to the Victorian era. I visited the cemetery with a friend recently who was perplexed by the fences since most cemeteries don’t have fences around each individual gravesite. He asked, wryly, if they were meant to keep people out or the deceased in?

Virginia City is a town that was established and came of age during the spiritualist movement of the mid and late 1800’s. There seems to have been a vibe in the town during its heyday—an acute sensitivity and openness to the communications of the departed. Spiritualism facilitated the ongoing communication between the souls of the living and the dead. Indeed, such interactions were encouraged, for spiritualists believed that the “dead” were more knowledgeable about spiritual reality and could therefore function as teachers to the living. Unsurprisingly, Virginia City is steeped in ghost lore. It is considered one of the most haunted cities in the U.S. and regularly hosts ghost walks and tours.

Looked at psychologically, the gravesite fences represent a demarcation between the living and the dead. Carl Jung saw such a boundary as important to both parties. If the relationship between the two is nurtured rather than being allowed to dissipate, neither soul moves on to its next station. Regarding this phenomenon Jung offered the following caution: “To be on the safe side, one must be content with spontaneous experiences. Experimenting with this contact regularly leads to the so-called communications becoming more and more stupid or to a dangerous dissociation of consciousness…There are experiences that show that the dead entangle themselves, so to speak, in the physiology (sympathetic nervous system) of the living” (Marie-Louise von Franz, On Dreams and Death; pp. 113, 114). Mary Todd Lincoln and Sarah Winchester (heiress to the Winchester Rifle Co. and creator of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California) are two examples of this phenomenon. Both women suffered from severe depression until their deaths, and both utilized séances and mediumship to maintain a connection to their deceased husbands and children.

A dream by Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz communicates a similar warning regarding psychological entanglement with the dead. The dream occurred within a few weeks of her father’s death. It was about ten o’clock in the evening, dark outside. I heard the doorbell ring and ‘knew’ at once somehow that this was my father coming. I opened the door and there he stood with a suitcase. I remembered from the Tibetan Book of the Dead that people who die suddenly should be told that they are dead, but before I could say so he smiled at me and said: ‘Of course I know that I am dead, but may I not visit you?’ I said: ‘Of course, come in,’ and then asked, ‘How are you now? What are you doing? Are you happy?’ He answered: ‘Let me remember what you, the living, call happy. Yes, in your language, I am happy. I am in Vienna (his hometown which he loved and longed for all his life) and I am studying at the music academy.’ Then he went into the house, we climbed the stairs and I wanted to lead him to his former bedroom. But he said: ‘Oh, no, now I am only a guest,’ and went up to the guestroom. There he put his suitcase down and said: ‘It is not good for either the dead or the living to be together too long. Leave me now. Good night.’ And with a gesture he signaled me not to embrace him, but to go… (On Dreams and Death; pp. 111, 112)

The importance of letting go of the dead applies not only to those you were close to who have died. It also applies to aspects of your own life that you have outgrown, or which no longer nourish you. Sometimes we give life support to relationships, attitudes, roles or beliefs that are outworn and no longer serve our development. Life has changed and we have changed, but we hang onto old patterns out of guilt, habit, insecurity, sentimentality or nostalgia. Continuing to resuscitate things which you have outgrown keeps you stuck. If there are things in your life that have died–and if you have learned from them what you were meant to learn–maybe it’s time to exit the cemetery and close the fence gate behind you.

References:
1) von Franz, Marie-Louise, On Dreams and Death: A Jungian Interpretation. Shambhala Press: Boston, MA, 1986.

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