Interview “Death Is Not the End of Everything”
In the recently published graphic novel ‘The Dust of the Ancestors’ by the Berlin artist Felix Pestemer, the guard of a mask museum writes a letter in which he recollects the deceased members of a family he is friends with. For him – just as for the readers – the dead are living on through memory. The story is embedded in the festivities surrounding the Mexican “Day of the Dead”. This is the largest and most famous holiday in Mexico. In 2003, the U.N. even declared it part of the “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. Andreas Hartung has interviewed Felix Pestemer for Der Tagesspiegel.
By Andreas Hartung on Tagesspiegel online (German).
Tagesspiegel: “The Day of the Dead” – what kind of holiday is that?
Felix Pestemer: The holiday is dedicated to people who have died. The families commemorate their dead. It is foremost in the indigenous structures where the belief prevails that the souls of the dead return [as ghosts] to the world on this day, on November 1st, and celebrate with the living. The original version of ‘The Dust of the Ancestors’ was not a graphic novel at all, it used to be just an illustrated non-fiction book with columns providing explanations. I produced it in 2009 with the financial assistance of some backers. That was more about creating pseudo-documentary illustrations to offer insight into Mexican traditions. Above all the main holiday of the year, the Day of the Dead. This is when people are building private altars for the deceased at their homes and decorate them with numerous personal possessions of the dead. It took me a long time to understand what is going on there. Now I believe that all those skeletons and sugar-coated skulls, while surely symbolizing death, are actually more an expression of a belief in ghosts and thus are not that macabre after all.
Which is to say that skeletons in Mexico represent death as they do here, but they are not used as an allegory, where death is personified as the grim reaper?
Exactly … You do have these skeletons and the sugar-coated skulls, but I don’t believe that the Mexicans imagine their loved ones and deceased as skeletons. Many Mexicans I met during working on this book found it quite exotic that someone would portray the dead precisely in that manner. But nobody ever felt offended because of it.
Here in Europe, we celebrate All Saints’ Day at the same time and All Souls’ Day shortly thereafter. And the festivities are indeed similar. All Souls’ Day is the day for commemorating the dead. However, people are not celebrating with the deceased, they are rather commemorating them – which used to be considered important for the salvation of their souls. The more people remember the dead and include them in their prayers, the more likely their salvation becomes.
That is thoroughly Catholic … and the Day of the Dead is in fact an amalgamation of what used to be there in pre-Spanish times with what the Spaniards brought to the table. Which is to say, this is a blending of Catholicism and indigenous religious beliefs. I think the Spaniards realized early on that they would be more successful if they tried to integrate preexisting traditions that came to the forefront now and then. This is also why they chose to celebrate the Day of the Dead on this exact date. But I do believe that the indigenous influences on the culture have been much stronger. Just look at it: How vivid the festivities remain to this day and how odd they appear in comparison to what is familiar to us in Europe.
How did your interest in this topic originate? Are you interested in cultural practices or are you more concerned with how people deal with death and with death as a general phenomenon?
I visited Mexico in 2000/2001 and stayed for half a year. That was less or more coincidental. And since I didn’t speak Spanish at the time, I naturally attended a language course. The instructor put strong emphasis on providing us insight into the Mexican culture as well. When the Day of the Dead arrived, she invited the students to her place. That was my first contact with this holiday. It made a major impression on me and I was very fascinated … In addition, I do have a soft spot for cemeteries and for all things that are in a state of decay. But I am always focused on how something new emerges out of it. I am talking about things as ordinary as a grave that has been forgotten completely. Who is lying here? What person did he or she used to be? These are the places where you can observe the workings of time and how, at the end of the day, it still is the most powerful force. Everything will be forgotten eventually and might turn into something completely else at that point.
Do you regard this as morbid? Mind you, time is also something that is natural.
No, I don’t really regard this as morbid. But it might appear that way to outsiders. Many things only look beautiful to me when they also have an element of decay.
You subsequently returned to Mexico when you received a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service for 2005/2006 …
At that time, I already knew what I wanted to do. I travelled a lot, did my own research, and started to make sketches.
The way Mexicans are dealing with death seems to be carefree …
That is the optimistic reading.
What would be the pessimistic reading?
The Mexican novelist Octavio Paz has observed that it also leads to contempt for life. This goes hand in hand with people making fun of death. We probably suspect that this is an expression of valuing life when being confronted with death, but it doesn’t have to be that way necessarily for the Mexican themselves.
Still, this method of handling death is fascinating, because it is in sharp contrast with how people are handling death in our own society. There seems to be a light-heartedness involved that is liberating. The European memento mori of the Middle Ages includes many playful elements as well and it sometimes is even drastic in this regard, but the artists are actually deadly serious about the issue.
Yes, the memento mori of the late Middle Ages is quite driven by fear. In comparison, the Day of the Death in Mexico is a pretty cool festivity. Whatever you want to say, these people also know how to celebrate things. Those who believe in it are looking forward to meeting their deceased. Of course, this is more of an abstract issue for me. But for the people over there it really turns into a material experience, something you can grasp and feel. Our own approach is much more austere.
At least it seems to be something more solemn here.
One contrast is that Mexicans have no reservations about being loud on the Day of the Dead. They throw firecrackers and shoot their guns off into the sky. To some extent, there is a lot of heavy drinking going on. In one instance in the book, a drunk is lying on a grave – this is what I have seen with my own eyes. I made a drawing of the scene in my sketchbook on the very next day. Whether he collapsed onto the grave of a stranger or was lying on the burial place of someone who was very close to him, I don’t know. But there are also contemplative rituals, such as the family holding a vigil at the grave at night. What I tried to do with my book is depicting both of these elements.
So people in Mexico are dealing differently with dying?
I think so, yes. People in our culture definitely cling more to life and value it much more. But I also believe that the experience of death is closer to everyday life in Mexico. However, it’s not that the Mexicans are not afraid of death. Maybe their fear is just less intense. They are making fun of death and I envy them for dealing in that fashion with something that, after all, is in store for all of us.
To be fair, such behavior is not completely alien to our own culture. As a matter of fact, it has not been that long that death has been banished from public discourse, except when it relates to stories in the news. It is actually the same thing with funeral cars. You don’t see them on the streets anymore. Which is to say: we no longer identify them as such. Some still do have to exist after all. We do see them, but they are in disguise and thus we don’t recognize them.
It is also no longer customary to lay out dead bodies at home where you can look at them, which, however, in principle I consider a good method of coming to terms with the death of a loved one. I was a conscientious objector and performed geriatric care as my community service. I did participate in end-of-life care a couple of times back then and it was a formative experience. I do believe that these kinds of rituals are a fine mechanism for coping. But my book is more concerned with personal relationships … ultimately with love.
You portray some sort of Beyond in your novel where the characters whose life or, more concretely, death stories we get to know remain existing for as long as someone remembers them. In the very moment the mask museum burns down, the cheerfully dining ghost of the mask carver dissolves.
Yes, the fear of death has been kicked down the road for a whole lifetime, so to say.
That is true to the motto that you are only really dead if the last person who remembered you has also died. But that isn’t the typical Mexican notion of the afterworld, is it?
No, this is rather a very personal reading of this kind of active remembrance. Death is most certainly a profound change, but as long as people do remember, the dead still do exist in some manner. Someone dies, turns into soil – from which new life starts to grow. The identity dissipates, but something remains behind and without that element everything else would look just a little bit different. Many illustrations I used relate to the Day of the Dead, but the understanding or rather what I make out of it is different. Usually, the dead would be gone again after the holiday, not to return before one whole year has passed. But in my book, they do have a parallel existence. They are celebrating a party and they live the resemblance of an ordinary life. But they appear as skeletons to highlight the fact that they are actually dead.
But the important thing to note is that this parallel existence in your story also has an end, just as the preceding life had. What comes after that is a complete dissolution …
And dissolution doesn’t get more complete than that.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. One could go on and on with narrating, just as Astrid Lindgren suggested in her novel The Brothers Lionheart.
However, you don’t do that, do you? The mask carver finally dissolves when the last thing that served as an attestation of his existence is destroyed. Admittedly, this dissolution appears as something peaceful …
Well, he is laughing while it happens.
But it is the end of his existence as he understands it. The end of his conscious mind.
I’m not sure about this … maybe it is only the point where the material existence ceases. Everything that kept him alive was his work. And when it is destroyed, he also disintegrates. That is in fact not my personal point of view, but in this case it is the rationale in the book. I was once on an unbelievable cemetery where, at the dumping area, I saw an old open coffin. It still contained the ropes and one could actually see the impressions that the body left behind. Those impressions were like an aura. And it was a completely materialistic experience at the same time. The distinction between To be and Not to be. And that was at the back of my mind when I drew the last scene with the mask carver. I guess this is how I used that experience for my art.
Do you believe in life after death?
Well, at least I do believe that death is not the end of everything. But what there is – I have no idea. The fact that I have memories of people, who died and which I knew when they were alive – it is already something. But what happens with memory? This is also addressed in the book. The first death, the death of the boy, is an immediate and the most heartbreaking experience. The second death involves old people. That is also the only actual depiction of someone dying; it looks like how most people are dying among us. The other deaths in the book are merely covered in intense anecdotes. The more time has passed, the more the memory of these deaths changes. First, they are a memory, then they become a story, then a legend, and eventually a symbol. And what comes thereafter? Maybe this is the question I asked myself. Is there a point where nothing at all remains? The comforting aspect of ‘Dust of the Ancestors’ is just as relative as the permanence of death. This is because the existence in the Beyond – in the story: what is happening in the tomb – is nothing more but a postponement. There are two intentions behind this, which are actually contradictory, but it appears that I subliminally wanted to be true to both of them: First, to not be afraid of death. Who in fact knows what comes hereafter and who can imagine an ultimate ending? And second, to stop behaving as if we were immortal. Whoever is mortal should act like it. So let’s do it!
Felix Pestemer: The Dust of the Ancestors, Avant, 88 pages, 24.95 Euro.