No Casper, no Dante, no Halloween

In a survey of death rituals around the world at the Field Museum, one culture missed the boat across the River Styx.

SHARE No Casper, no Dante, no Halloween
A mask of Tai Shan Wang, “Judge of the 7th Court” in an imperial Chinese vision of hell, on display at the “Death: LIfe’s Greatest Mystery” show at the Field Museum until Aug. 27.

A mask of Tai Shan Wang, “Judge of the 7th Court” in an imperial Chinese vision of hell, on display at the “Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery” show at the Field Museum until Aug. 27.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Unlike you, I actually read books of contemporary poetry. Because they float my way and I like the cover. Or, in the case of “Citizen Illegal,” because a college-age neighbor loaned me José Olivarez’s 2018 debut collection. I take the literary recommendations of young people as a compliment, nearly a duty.

I enjoyed Olivarez’s casual, lowercase tone, his honesty, nodding along as he explains how his therapist, encouraging him to “make friends with your monsters,” doesn’t realize just how relentless those beasts can be.

...i ran & it never stopped

chasing me. each new humiliation

coming to life & following after me.

Opinion bug


I forgave Olivarez the occasional broadside fired in my direction, such as in “Mexican Heaven,” which begins:

there are white people in heaven, too,

they build condos across the street

& ask the Mexicans to speak English.

Well, yeah, we white folks can be jerks.

The poem ends:

i’m just kidding.

there are no white people in heaven.

Of course not. There can’t be, because white people don’t die. At least that’s the impression I took away last week from “Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery” at the Field Museum.

The grim reaper gives us a tour of the globe. We see a Mexican ofrenda, eight paintings of a decomposing Japanese monk, a Ghanaian coffin decorated as a boat, a Haitian spirit flag, Peruvian mummies.

I particularly liked the mask of Tai Shan Wang, a denizen of Chinese hell, “Judge of the 7th Court, where liars and gossipers had their tongues removed.”

“Mmm, nice,” I thought. “We could sure use ...” Better stop there.

Animals were not overlooked. A deep-sea octopus seems very angry to find himself in a jar of preservative. One display explores grief in the animal world.

Despite this thoroughness, when I reached the end, it struck me that one group was missing.

There were artifacts from Jewish burial societies, and a photograph of Arlington National Cemetery. But no Victorian photos of the dead. No display of marble angels. Where was whitebread America and its sanitized avoidance of death? Day of the Dead, yes. Halloween, no.

I didn’t feel seen.

I know. Read the room. Heretofore marginalized groups are ushered into center stage, and previous society-straddling classes can go sit in the corner and think about our past misdeeds. If you feel excluded, good. Turnabout is fair play.

Decorum demands this dynamic not even be mentioned, unless you’re on Fox News, where they never stop mentioning it. Take your payback for centuries of white dominance and shut up. Let’s see how you like being excluded.

Flash: No one likes it. And every racist I’ve ever met has what they consider solid historical reasons for trivializing others. Exclusion is exclusion. It’s the hazing mentality — I went through this as a frosh; now I’m a senior and get to do it to you. We see how well that works at Northwestern.

No need to guess at motives. I reached out to the Field Museum. Am I correct that white America’s death rituals missed the boat across the River Styx?

“You’re absolutely right,” said Matt Matcuk, exhibitions development director at the Field. “That part does not play a significant role in the content of the exhibit.”

And why is that?

“We’re a museum that has collections from these cultures around the world,” Matcuk said. “We want to show them to people and get them thinking about cultures that are different. We’re trying to show a bunch of different cultural responses to death and let the visitor bring their own expectations and measure against them.”

So this was stuff they had on hand. The museum never bothered to send anthropologists to Iowa to collect funeral cards. And the white traditions are expected to already be in the heads of visitors. That seems worse than I imagined.

The exhibit runs until Aug. 27. Three years in the making, the exhibit was created immediately after the George Floyd unrest and COVID-19 lockdown. When it opened, the makeup was presented as more a deliberate choice, less an accident of inventory.

“We had to reassess and think about the fact that we’re living in a time of plague, war and social injustice, and that our exhibit should reflect that,” Field curator of anthropology, Gary Feinman, told the Sun-Times last October.

“Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery” certainly reflects social injustice, perhaps in more ways than they realize.

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