11/16/2016 04:27 EST | Updated 11/16/2016 04:27 EST

Ashes At The Opera

An audience member during the second intermission of the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday matinee performance of Rossini's William Tell reported to the management that a man had been observed sprinkling the white powdery contents of black bag into the orchestra pit: some near the timpani, the rest by the podium. Fearing that the powder was anthrax, the Met cancelled the last act. Police swarmed to the scene; the evening performance -- it was to have been the comic L'Italiana in Algeri -- was cancelled as well.

The good news for opera lovers was that by Monday New York's intelligence and counterterrorism unit had gotten their man and stopped his crime spree: the culprit was Roger Kaiser from Dallas, Texas who, in 2012, had promised a dying friend who had introduced him to opera and been his guide to what became a beloved art form that he would sprinkle his ashes in the various houses where they had listened together. "He would be there forever enjoying all the beautiful music;" "they would never be able to vacuum all of him up." Until the incident at the Met this is how it was. Kaiser had been able to fulfill his promise discretely at various opera houses without being noticed.


There is a great deal that is absurd and ironic about this story: the fact that since 9/11 the first thought that comes to mind when anyone hears "white powder" is anthrax; that the incident brought out the full force of the NYPD's terrorism unit, still on high alert since the September bombings on 23rd street, to deal what was quickly, if not yet definitively before lab results came in, that the powder was human ash; and that the deputy commission would have to make a public statement that scattering them did not constitute an act of terrorism but was perhaps a violation of public health laws.

It is ironic and sad, as Mr, Kaiser himself pointed out, that he and thousands of other had to miss entirely one of Maestro James Levine's last performances because his own gesture had gone wrong. Most absurd but also most poignant and achingly human is the thought that the perpetrator's dead friend Terry would be present to hear the opera's he loved at the Met and other houses even for a moment never mind forever.

Modern cremation is an awesome thing. Introduced in the 1870's, it mobilized the 1000+ centigrade heat of new, technologically advanced reverberating steel making furnaces to reduce a full grown human body into no more ashes than would fill one a medium size cereal box. Nothing like this had happened before in the long history of how we humans treat our dead.

Today we use special electric furnaces but the effect is the same: matter indistinguishable from one body to the next and from the stuff of fertilizer. The Scottish Mountaineering Council urges members not to scatter the ashes of dead friends on the more iconic peaks because all that phosphorous is beginning to disturb the vegetation in what is meant to be wilderness. Cremation wreaks impossible violence on the body.

The powdery stuff we bury or shoot into space or make into ink for tattoos or scatter in opera houses and elsewhere bears no identifying characteristics of the person we have lost. And yet it gives us the dead back in a form that allows us to keep them--those we have cared for in life--in a place where we can imagine them being even when every rational instinct tells us they are just ash.

How is this possible? Why do we persist with this comic absurdity? One answer is that we care for the ashes of the dead because more generally we care for the bodies of our dead. No culture, now or in the past as far as we can look back over tens of thousands of years, has ever left its dead to rot unceremoniously in fields and forests. But this answer only pushes the question back one step.

A perhaps more satisfying explanation is that all of us, the religious for sure but also the most secular among us, believe our beloved dead are somewhere: heaven perhaps, in another body of if we believe in the migration of souls; there are lots of possibilities. But they are somewhere. One obvious place is that they are where their bodies- or even where fragments of their bodies-- are. The dead of the Twin Towers attack are gathered in the bones that rest beneath the names on the 9/11 memorial.

And by extension we can somehow convince ourselves that the atoms that make up the ashes that we scatter are those that belonged to our dead even if they are like all other atoms of the same sort. I believe that the ashes of my mother that I scattered onto the waters of a lake in Virginia where she loved to swim for over forty years are somehow her even though I know that calcium is calcium and nitrogen is nitrogen whatever its origins. She is there among other places just as Roger thought Terry is in the various opera houses where he managed to leave his friend's ashes before he was caught at the Met. (And perhaps he succeeded even there; perhaps not every atom was vacuumed up.)

The final and only real answer to the question of what has, and continues, to sustain the absurdity of scattering ashes and our care of bodies more generally is that we are human. We as a species cannot live without our dead because we need them to constitute ourselves as the kind of creatures that we are, creatures that have a past and will have a future. Bodies and even ashes allow us to imagine the dead are still among us and that we, the living, will find a safe place among them.

Thomas W. Laqueur's new book about death and funeral practices, "The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains," is shortlisted for the World's largest history award, the 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature. The $100,000 prize will be awarded in Toronto, Canada later this month.

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