Death trip

Richard started talking about the cult of death as soon as I answered the phone. I was cooking, juggling the stovetop, oven and grill, so some of the theory escaped me. Yet what I heard resonated. It goes like this:

We’ve been hit with a pandemic, just as many of us have feared would happen. It’s been worldwide. It’s still spreading. Even when we close this chapter with the help of a vaccine or herd immunity, it’s becoming clear there will be more to come. And it all seems to be tied to changes in the world we inhabit.

The cult part involves the unexpected phenomenon of those welcoming whatever happens, claiming it’s better than an assault on their economic and other freedoms. We’re speaking about the people who laugh at masks and social distancing, who loudly crowd into bars and beach enclosures, the motorcyclists who headed out to the Dakotas and the Texas lieutenant governor who offered himself and his fellow seniors as sacrifices to economic hopes.


Richard said it was all a weird new take on Patrick Henry’s liberty equation, as well as a revision on the darkness explored throughout much of Central Europe in the first half of the last century, as well as the darkness that preceded the Renaissance.

I reopened a book that changed my life decades ago: Michael Lesy’s “Wisconsin Death Trip.” A mixture of newspaper snippets, diary entries, pieces of letters and vernacular photos of rural life in the late nineteenth century, including then-standard portraits of the freshly dead taken by funeral photographers – the work captures the effects of constant challenge. We witness a world that was not only comfortable with its own mortality, but also obsessed by it.

The book’s dryness creates a riveting lyricism, a howl of humanity. It started as a university thesis and was published in 1973.

Why bring up such darkness, I asked Richard. To pass through it, he replied. To realize we don’t need always to add to the hurt supplied by the world itself.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.