What Belongs to Us

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Kutná Hora, Czech Republic – September 2016

After the worms had done their work, the half-blind monk cleaned and polished the bones, and then stacked them into neat pyramids. Day after day. It was his life’s work. More than 40,000 bodies, mostly victims of the Black Death and wars, were laid to temporary rest in this small cemetery. Hallowed ground. It had been sprinkled, once upon a time, with earth brought back from Golgotha. The Place of the Skull. Centuries after the monk’s passing, a local woodcarver was commissioned by an aristocratic family to arrange the bones in a more aesthetically pleasing way. No one could have imagined the astonishing result.

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Ugh. Gruesome. Someone whispers. Kinda disrespectful, someone else agrees. But mostly, there is silence in this subterranean chapel.

It’s difficult to accept that this unique sequence of DNA does not belong to us. That one day worms will consume our flesh. That our graves could be desecrated. Our remains picked over like items at a garage sale. And now, in the frantic quest for immortality, some scientists envision cemeteries as fields of DNA ripe for harvest. For resurrection. So far, there is no evidence of the soul being encoded in the DNA. Behavior, yes. But that’s not the same thing. This doesn’t appear to be a concern for those scientists. It makes sense that those who don’t believe in a soul would feel no need to reawaken it. The husks of our Selves might once again wander the Earth one day.

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The cluster of tourists ascends and I find myself alone down here. A thought arises: do our spirits remain intact, or do they disperse and dissipate into an infinite sea of existence? Things are supposed to become clearer with age. Or maybe we become more aware of possibilities.

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Some live their whole lives indifferent to the flesh and blood that houses the spirit. Some loathe it and abuse it. Others subject it to a strict regimen, aiming for perfection. For forty-eight years, I have inhabited this vessel with every atom of my awareness. Sometimes paradise, sometimes prison. Every sensation is a shockwave. The maddening pain in this skull. The fire that smolders in this core. So often it feels as though it cannot be contained.

What a relief it must be to leave it all behind.

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Once upon a time, I worked on bodies, young and old. Super fit and gravely ill. I glided my hands over their skin, searching for blockages. The traumas that we carry with us. Physical, psychological. All of it is stored in the body. The names of the muscles and bones that I kneaded and soothed danced through my mind. Trapezius, Latissimus dorsi. Secret anguish loves to nestle itself in these two. Under my hands, it dissolved. This was before I realized that I feel what others feel and think it’s me who feels that way. Before I knew how to protect myself. The work bled me dry and left me hollow. These days, I touch almost no one.

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Did the artist of death contemplate the souls as he arranged the bones with such meticulous precision? What beauty did the eyes in this skull behold? For whom did the heart under this sternum flutter? Did he ever feel the urge to put them all back together again?

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