Little of what we know or imagine about death suggests resting in peace. To die is to enter a series of bio-chemical processes: blood pools and clots, limbs stiffen, cells burst open, gases are released, flesh-consuming bacteria spring into action. Depending on how a body is disposed, it enters the environment as food or poison, sometimes as both. It has an ecological afterlife.
Depending on one’s beliefs, the dead—as souls, as spirits, as bodies, as energy—travel and encounter each other: they cross rivers, they defend themselves in judgment chambers, they ride horses, they feast, they strum harps, they sing, they dance, they fight everything (see the Nac Mac Feegles), they scream, they writhe in pain, they beg for mercy, they start new cycles in different bodies, they enter the noisy world of ancestors, they haunt and terrorize, they look for psychics and ghost whisperers.
The dead are restless. We’d prefer not to deal with that knowledge.
I have been trying to think about the vernacular RIP, about what it anchors, what it provides, and what it avoids. I have been trying to think about its ubiquity across a range of lifeworlds and political stances, about what it arrests.
One understands that those mourning might desire rest: grief is exhausting, crying dehydrates, bodies ache in unfamiliar ways.
But mourning is never one thing: some mourn on the run, some stockpile weapons, some burn shit down, some create gardens, some fight over property and money, some become catatonic, some have a lot of sex, some become incredibly religious, some seek out new vices, some turn to crime, some turn to good works, some remain stuck—unable to know what to do and how to do it.
Mourning is peace-disturbing. Rest is impossible.
Perhaps because rest and peace are impossible for mourners, we desire them for the dead. I wrote “dad” instead of dead. This, too, is a symptom.
It is surely a sign of our neoliberal times that death announcements in Kenyan newspapers are titled, “Promoted to Glory.” There might be something to this idea—that the afterlife is a corporate space, a place of labor and struggle, never simply a place to “rest in peace.”
It might also be that we say RIP because the unsettled dead frighten us: they populate our reports, fill our television screens, flicker at the edge of what we see. They fill our imaginations and shape our musical tastes. We practice deadness as we dress up as the gone, as we enflesh virtual worlds, as we imagine ourselves as lives and afterlives.
And though we ask for things for the dead—justice, peace, rest—we can’t help feeling that we don’t quite know what the dead want. We worry that if we actually knew, we would never be able to grant it.
So we chant RIP.
Don’t disturb us.
Please leave us alone.
We dare not ask how you’d judge us.
RIP because the dead tear at our world-inhabiting fantasies.