The Dead are Gods | Eirinie Carson

32 mins read

this essay was first published in THE DEAD ARE GODS (Melville House, 2023)

I am not really a believer. I suppose the best way to describe myself would be atheist, but then again, I do like the idea of something greater than the universe, just not necessarily an old man with a beard keeping score. I have never been a fervent believer in anything, not in my little born again Christian primary school in South East London, not in the Catholic all-girls school where mass was mandatory, not even in the Russian Orthodox church in which I was raised. And Orthodox churches are pretty mystical, a lot of smoke and low voices and dizziness because you have to stand throughout, a sort of out of body experience. Even that did not ever sway me into religion. In fact, the most diligent I have ever been with prayers and worship is with you, Larissa. 

My mother is a talented iconographer. Some of my most nostalgic smells that take me back to my childhood are that of the tempera and the varnish, the smell of her solemnly finishing her painting, the praying that took place before she even started. I think I should like to paint you, Larissa. I think this is what I am doing as I write. Let me begin with a prayer to your mother, a hope that she will see my aim is true, see that my writing is, in essence, a way of me completing the picture of you, varnishing it, waiting for it to be blessed. 

In the Russian Orthodox church, icons are significant. Painting an icon takes time. It is a measured, almost formulaic process. There are some meditative qualities to it, a rhythm in the rote-ness. First, you must know your saint. You must know their lives, know the aspects of them that are important to bring out in a painting, were they a teacher? A student? Were they martyred? How did they die? They must be like a friend to you, a beloved family member. You ready the board; you sand and prepare your wood, cover it in Gesso, a centuries old primer. Not just any wood, it cannot be too hard, resinous woods leak sap over time, warping in different temperatures. Birch wood and cedar are good choices, limewood is cheaper, stable. The paint pigments can come in powder but some you have to grind, some are too gritty, grind on a piece of glass using a large glass flat grinder and water, or you can refine the paint with egg as if preparing a meal. For the egg concoction, the tempera, you only use the yolk, the pure protein with vinegar and water and it acts like a natural polymer. The thing with egg, my mother explained to me, is that the protein hardens with exposure to oxygen and so the paint becomes harder and harder over the years, meant to last generations of faith. Icons are painted to last a minimum of 500 years and egg tempera, when properly done, will last well over that, as seen in the churches in Mt Athos and Mt Sinai, testaments to the process. Like the remnants of a fried egg left on a plate, dried. 

Then comes applying the paint to the board, a process religious in its specificity. The darkest layer goes first, and then you would move to lighter paint, building up to even lighter layers, reflecting the movement from darkness to the lightness of revelation. It is important to remember that each brush stroke is a step toward knowledge, toward understanding, toward a closer relationship with your God. Next, the facial details, those long noses and broad nostrils so classic in Orthodox icons, a face that is facing you, unshrinking, unrepelled by your fallibility. A top layer of paint goes on, the lightest, the final stage, to symbolise the illumination of eternity shining out of the subject of the icon because the subject is now forever enshrined, you have made them infinite. You varnish with linseed oil, sealing it, before handing it to the church where a new icon typically sits on the altar for a week after being blessed.

During this whole process, it is customary to pray before you paint, but the best thing is to take part in the eucharistic life of the Church, including attending services, going to confession, receiving communion, so that you yourself, the artist, are as close to your god and your saints as you can be, in order to better communicate that closeness onto the board. You are never far from God when you are creating an icon.

What is this all this writing if not an icon to you? I have never been closer, never examined your life quite like this, who you are, what you wanted. There is an intimacy in my loss of you, I can get closer than you would have perhaps allowed me when you were living, I can examine things about you without being rebuffed, closing that inner door of yours on me. Now I feel as if I am in a museum, or rather a church, in front of a painting (or rather, an icon), studying you in this frozen tableau of life, finding myself closer to you as I see your colours, the darkness moving to light, the two raised fingers of your hand to symbolise a teacher. Because you were my teacher in so many things, and even in death you move in mysterious ways, you teach me still. Writing about you has taught me things about myself, my ability to understand, my capacity for love, what it means to love beyond death.

You never frame an icon, my mother told me. You do not frame it because the images are representing people who are still here but invisible, and to put frames around them would be to create a break between our world and theirs. Fencing them in, limiting them. Restricting our ability to connect. And so, death is not the final door, slammed in my face. It is a gate, I can see over it and beyond, I can find you still even though you are not living anymore. I cannot touch you but I can see you, I can feel you, I can hear you. And what else is love if not belief? 

In the Orthodox faith, we kiss our icons. When we would visit the cathedral in Enismore Gardens (which took two very long buses to get to from our South East London home) we would often seek out our saints, the icons that meant the most, and light a candle in front of them, kiss their edges. I wondered about this, I wondered whether this was idolatry, I wondered what it meant to kiss an inanimate object with such pious reverence, but my mother explained, “we kiss them because they are people that we love, even if they are dead, and would you ever come into a room and not kiss me, or Adam, or your grandmother, or your daughter?” It was then that I understood the icons are an extension of the people we wish to feel with us once again, the people we love. I forgive myself this idolatry, Larissa. I allow myself to pore over our history, to kiss our corners, to light my candle every time I sit down at this keyboard. 

The subjects of the icons almost always face the viewer, which my mother says is important. The whole aim in life, she says, is to be seen as we are, by God, by others. A true representation of who we are, no hiding, an acceptance of the flaws with the good, and so the saints and the holy people in the icons face us, dead on, and we face them. And we are accepted. I want to do this with you, too. I want to face you, I want to turn you and position you so that you can face me, and I want us to look at each other with acceptance. There are things I know about you now, Larissa, that are difficult to reconcile with who you were with me when you were alive. Somehow, I must find a way through the stories I tell myself about you, the facts at my disposal, and somehow, I must end this all by looking at you, straight on, and understanding. 

The saint in the icon is not only a witness but a reflection, too. Because in this journey to understand my loss, your death, our love, I have created a mirror in which I can see myself, and so to stand and look at you is also to stand and look at myself. But I suppose it was always like that, we were always similar, I just see it more clearly now.

This is a hagiography. I have sainted you; I have anointed you and you have become more than my memories. You are made flesh. But in telling a saint’s story you must be true, you must acknowledge the holy things, yes, but you must also acknowledge the ways in which they were fallible humans, because in the fallibility lies what makes them saints. For a long time, Larry, you were infallible to me, a deity, your physical beauty alone seemed unearthly. You seemed so much more than me, so above me, in intelligence and wit and presence. But I see now that this is not how I best remember you, this is not how I best honour my love of you. Because to love you truly is to turn my body to face yours, to look at your truths, to look at the things you hid from me and from others who loved you, and say, I love you not in spite of but because of all that you were. Even the murky, even the things that I want to pack away into a box in the attic and pretend are not part of your history. I want to hold it all, the beauty and the blood, I want to redeem you and I want to be redeemed.

Sometimes I want to bring you back, like Lazarus. I want to resurrect you from your tomb, to defy the laws of Earth, I wish for this even if it were only possible for a day. I have questions, I have answers, I have things I would like to do with you. But really, in my writing I have realised that perhaps it is I who is Lazarus, you who is the resurrector, bringing me back from the living death of grief. In memorializing you, in bowing before this sacrilegious altar, I am reinflating myself; I have found a way that the death of you can create life in me. What I am reluctant to do, what I am worrying I am doing is writing a towering testament. Descending from the mountain, stone tablets in hand- this is who she was, this is her history. But what do any of us truly know about the interior lives of the people we love? I was stunned to learn things after she died, stunned that there was so much she never told me. I am trying to carve her story not in stone but in the sand, aware that when the tide comes it will be washed away, or changed some. I am aware that there are people who knew her that will read this book and will have their own version of events. I am trying to be as clear and as honest as I can in order to make a path for these other stories.

I spoke to your mum yesterday. She has not found a similar peace and I don’t know how to fix that. I feel a little like a door-to-door preacher when I speak to her, I have my sermons I can hold and pat her hand, try to make her listen, but she is somewhere else. Somewhere darker than I am, somewhere that is hard to reach. I don’t think I can help her, not even with this offering. It was my intention to bring some healing, some light, but perhaps I can only bring that to myself. Perhaps it is not for me to try to drag your mother to the place I find myself in. Perhaps all I can do is to show her the church I have built, show her the incense and the choir, invite her to stand with me. Like a good priest I want that for her. I want her to be saved. 

My own mother told me just the other day, “we find it very difficult to believe we can be loved because of who we are, usually it is transactional, we are loved because we do the right things. It’s very painful to love people when they’re not being easy to love.” But isn’t that when we really love someone? Isn’t that indicative of a love that is beyond surface, beyond the day to day, a deeper love that probes, that ever-elusive unconditional love? Isn’t the love I share with Adam this way, unflinching? We often say to each other, there is nothing you could do that would repulse me. Because we know each other, we know the boundaries and borders that mark our personality, the things we find funny the things we find sad, we know each other so well that even a trespass, even a sin would be understood. I love him even when he is not being easy to love. I love you, Larissa, even though you were not always easy to love. I love you in the face of many home truths, of many revelations, I love you even after you are long dead, it turns out. The lives of holy men and women are a crucial portion of the bible. It is important, it contextualises and humanizes a whole faith. And so, Larry, does your life. It symbolizes love, it symbolizes friendship and sisterhood, it is so much more than the way in which you died. You are so much more than how you died. 

The Russian Orthodox church always seemed transcendental to me, the services last hours and hours, are laden in heavy smoke from incense, the atmosphere is close and it is almost celestial. The choir that is often present lead the mood with slow, minor harmonies, and I can never shake the haunting memory of standing in line, waiting to receive communion, and hearing the traditional hymn (“Of the body of Christ take ye, of the well of immortality taste ye”) sung up high behind me, lilting, dizzying. Visibility is low during the service, and only the people truly in need of a seat will sit. There are no pews, the few chairs available are scattered about the room, old babushkas taking a moment to sit, or the occasional pregnant woman. The presence of chairs would instill a hierarchy- in other types of churches there were specific pews for the donating patrons, the poor people, the undesirables. In the Orthodox faith one stands to pray because we are equal to God and equal to the saints that we see on the walls. The nature of standing is dignity. There is freedom in the worship, one can move around the church freely, with no boundaries. 

I have seen grown men faint during services, from the heady aroma of the incense, from the standing. I learnt young how to stand for long periods of time- legs slightly parted, firm, I never needed the chair but definitely wanted one. It was an exercise for me, to see if I could, a competition with myself to distract from the glacial pace of the liturgy which was often in Russian. An endurance test. I was good at it. People would compliment my mother on my behaviour, they would think I was enraptured with the church, mesmerized by the priest. And there was something mesmerizing about it all, for sure, but mostly I was just trying to withstand.

It has been a long time, maybe a decade since the last time I witnessed an orthodox ceremony. I am not religious, I am not pious, I do not miss the proximity to Christ or whomever, but I miss the ritual. I miss the quiet endurance; I miss the smell of myrrh and the sound of the chain of the incense holder clinking as the deacon sways it around the room. I miss the taste of holy communion, the Prosphora chunks floating in wine in a gold chalice, I miss the ornate vestments of the clergy, often completed with a long grey beard. I miss the pomp and circumstance of the liturgy, not dissimilar from the Catholic mass, but with more heart. Perhaps this is why the way in which I worship you feels so familiar, so comforting- because I was trained from a young age to listen in silence, to withstand, to endure.

Is this idolatry? I say your name most days, I can often be found murmuring whispered prayers to you. I have your photo as the background on my phone, it is the first thing I look at in the morning and the last at night. It is like my saint card, and I clutch it close and try to read the answers in your eyes. My writing desk is now a small altar to you, a photo of you from a shoot, Paris in the background somehow still not as beautiful as you are. Were. Are? The hopeful pages of my writing taped to the walls, I am a religious zealot in that room, I pace and mark the walls and rearrange your story, trying to find the truth, trying to tell the story of an angel. 

I think you would be uncomfortable with this amount of worship. I think you might cringe, tell me to take stuff down. But perhaps you would also be moved, perhaps if you saw my dedication to you even after death you would know the depth of my love. You would know my reluctance to accept the presumed finality of loss. You would know that I seek to resurrect you with any mean necessary. You would know I am devout.

I saw my first dead body in a church. An open casket, traditional in the Orthodox religion. The cathedral we frequented was dark, I am not sure I ever saw it with lights on, the sun pouring through the sporadic windows did little to illuminate anything but the hypnotic swirls of incense smoke, the choir above and behind me, a cacophony of voices as if from the heavens and, then, a corpse. In orthodox faith, the dead one is still a member of the congregation even when no longer breathing, and I think I sensed this as a child, that she was just another person. I don’t recall being scared despite being young, I remember there was something peaceful about it, something that didn’t feel sad. An acceptance, perhaps. The lady was old, no one was crying, it felt respectful and calm. The service continued and I assume later she was buried. It felt like just another part of the day. 

When you died, when I went to your funeral, I felt disbelief. Sorrow. I wanted to see your body because I wanted to know it was true, because it didn’t feel true it felt like a cruel joke was being played on me, I needed to see your face. Like St Thomas, I needed to put my finger in the marks of the nails. I needed to feel the pain of reality because I felt as if I was floating in a dream-like sea, such was the dissonance between you being dead and the insistence I had in my gut that you weren’t, couldn’t be. Perhaps that is why I clutch your stories so close to me, because I must feel them, feel the viscosity, feel the weight of it all, some sort of self-flagellation to bring me closer to you, the mortification of my flesh making space for you to find your way in, to prevent me from forgetting who you were, what you meant. It is my penance for not saving you, for not being a better friend, for not seeing the path you were on when I could have helped. And also, how can I live my lovely life when you are dead? How can I move on? How is that honouring you? I cannot just light a candle once a year on the 24th of September. I cannot bring myself to severe the ties I have to you, the ardent worship of you. Once I finish writing, then what? Then do I forget? Then do I move on? Then does my remembering of you take the tone of a weary Christian going through the motions every Sunday, dutiful but absent? Surely not. Surely the work I have done to remember you, to look at your life with an unflinching honesty and faithful kinship, surely that will mean you are eternal. Surely, in my grief, I have made you a god. I have made you the god you were always destined to be and now, because of my devotion, I will be rewarded with you for always.

I wonder if this is how Jesus’ disciples felt. Because, when he died, it must have felt like it did when I laid my palm on top of your coffin- empty, final, quiet. The stark cold reality of the proximity of your corpse a reminder that all of my magical thinking had been in my head. But then, three days later the disciples saw an empty tomb and the emptiness had the opposite effect, the emptiness was not a void but full of promise, a series of possibilities. And when I left Paris and was far from you and yet still the notion of you, the image of you was vibrant in my head, when I could still imagine exactly your reaction to whatever situations, that imagining felt like a possibility. The possibility of life after death, the possibility that you, and all that you were, did not vanish but remain here with me, immortalised in egg and paint and wood.

Eirinie Carson is a Black British Londoner and writer living in California. She is a mother of two children, Luka and Selah. A member of the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, Eirinie is a frequent contributor to Mother magazine, and her work has also appeared in LitHub and You Might Need To Hear This. She is also the recipient of the Teaching Fellowship from Craigardan, NY and an alumni of the Hambidge Center. Eirinie writes about motherhood, grief and relationships and is currently working on her second book, a novel. You can order her first book, The Dead are Gods, here.