“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe Explores the Characteristics of Grief

A bird that speaks only one word shreds a man's soul

Edgar Allan Poe published “The Raven” to mixed reviews in January of 1845. He was paid only a modest fee for his work, which did not become famous until well after his death five years later. The cause of Poe’s early death — he was only 40 — is unknown. Various scholars have attributed his passing to suicide, accidental overdose of alcohol or other drugs, tuberculosis and even rabies.

The Raven poem about grief

Credit: watchersonthewall.com

The plot of “The Raven” is relatively simple. A young man is trying to distract his mind from his deceased loved one named Lenore. (After the poem was published, Poe identified the narrator as a scholar, though there is no indication of that in the poem.)

As he begins to drift off to sleep, he hears a rapping at his chamber door. He answers it, but finds nothing there. Next, he gets a brief, hopeful sense that Lenore has returned to him as a spirit. He hears a sound from the window, opens it, and a raven walks in.

The raven knows only one word: “Nevermore.” At first the narrator is amused by the raven’s limited vocabulary, but then he feels the need to start talking to it about Lenore. The raven tells the narrator that he and Lenore will never be together again, even in heaven:

“’Prophet,’ said I ‘thing of evil – prophet still if bird or devil!

By that heaven that bends above us –by that God we both adore –

Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn,

It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore –

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore.’

Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”

The end of the poem finds the narrator in despair and still unable to rid himself of the raven. It is interesting that, at the beginning of the poem, the narrator is reading to try to distract himself from the memories of Lenore. The last line finds him obsessed with his long lost love and concluding,

“And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted – nevermore –”

You can read the entire poem here.

Credit: www.amazon.com

Credit: www.amazon.com Edgar Allan Poe

When Edgar Allan Poe spoke of “The Raven,” he said that his goal was to create a complex and methodical poem. Some people assume that he wrote this verse while grieving his wife, but in fact his wife did not die until two years after “The Raven” was published. The poem borrows elementsfrom the work of Charles Dickens, who also wrote about a talking raven. Poe believed that a raven would make a more stately and forbidding character than any other talking bird, such as a parrot.

Although the reaction to “The Raven” was lukewarm when Poe first published it, over the years it has become one of the best known poems about grief and death. It deals with the obsession bereaved people may feel and with how meaningless words, like the raven’s repetitive, “Nevermore,” can cause tremendous pain. If you are dealing with grief, reading “The Raven” may help you work through your feelings and provide some comfort and understanding.

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Ceremonial Art of the Asmat Depicts Life and Death

These beautifully intricate wood carvings are on on display at The Met
Asmat ancestral figure

Asmat ancestral figure
(Credit: metmuseum.org)

For the Asmat of southwestern New Guinea, woodcarving is a tradition that dates back to their cultural understanding of the beginning of time. According to Asmat legend, the first being to exist on earth was Fumeripits, a lone individual who spent his days dancing on the beach. When Fumeripits grew tired of being alone, he chopped down several trees and carved them into human figures, which he placed inside his home, or “jeu.”

Still unhappy with his inanimate companions, Fumeripits decided to make a drum. He chopped down yet another tree, hollowed out the center and placed a lizard skin on top. When he began to play the drum, his wood carvings came to life and began to dance. 

Today,  Asmat woodcarvers are highly revered members of  the Asmat tribe who follow in Fumeripits footsteps, creating beautiful, intricate wood sculptures to commemorate their ancestors, facilitate rites of passage and celebrate the dead. Many of these works are on display at the Metropolitan Museum in a collection donated by Michael C. Rockefeller in 1961. 

Some of the most representative examples of Asmat wood carvings are ancestral figures such as the one shown at left. Although each sculpture is believed to have been created as a tribute to someone who recently died, the figures are all strikingly similar, with hands and knees joined in a posture resembling that of a fetus in utero, which is also the posture the Asmat believe the body assumes after death. The figures also closely resemble praying mantises, a fertility symbol long associated with the ancient Asmat practice of headhunting.

Asmat bis pole commemorates the dead

“Bis” pole
(Credit: arthistorywithivy.weebly.com)

Certainly the most striking examples of the Asmat art of woodcarving are ceremonial totems known as “bis” poles. Sometimes reaching heights of 20 feet or more, these intricately carved poles act as the focal point of a memorial feast honoring those who recently died. In ancient times, the poles were erected as reminders that the dead must be avenged, and “bis” feasts marked the beginning or a headhunting foray. 

The “bis” pole is carved from a single Mangrove tree and is divided into three parts. The center, or “bis anakat,” consists of images of the person for whom the pole was created and his dead relatives (only men are celebrated in this way.) The top of the pole, the “cemen,” is crafted from a single tree root and is decorated with headhunting motifs. The bottom, the “ci,” is shaped like a canoe, which symbolically transports the dead to the afterworld. The pointed end of the pole anchors it in the ground.

Amazingly, these extremely intricate carvings are used only once and then discarded in a stand of sago palms, where they are left to rot or are ritually destroyed. Sago is the primary food source of the Amat, who believe the supernatural powers of the pole will nourish the earth and ensures an abundant sago harvest later on.

Spirit canoe

Amat spirit canoe
(Credit: holmes anthropolgymuseum.org)

Still another example of Asmat wood carvings are ceremonial “spirit canoes,” or “wuramon.” Like the “bis” pole, these intricately carved vessels depict the figures of those who have died, and are used in a single ritual, the bone house feast, which both celebrates the dead and serves as a rite of passage for young boys. Prior to the feast, the boys are secluded in a specially erected house, known as a Emaktsjim, for several days while the spirit vessel is built. Then, on the day of the ceremony, tribal elders take the canoe to the river and symbolically launch the spirits of the dead to Safan, the afterworld. They then return to the ceremonial house, where the door is opened and the boys emerge and crawl over the canoe one by one. On the other side, their bodies are decorated by the women of the village — a celebration of their symbolic transition into manhood.

The art and traditions of the Amat provide a rare glimpse into what is almost certainly soon to be a lost world. Learn more about their fascinating culture here.

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What Is Whole Body Donation? An Interview with Andrew Corson

The director of the UCSF Willed Body Program talks to us about donating a body to science

This is the second of a two-part SevenPonds interview with Andrew Corson, Director of the Willed Body Program at the University of California, San Francisco. (Read part one here.) A division of the UCSF Department of Anatomy, the program provides donated human bodies to the UCSF medical and dental schools and a variety of research and educational programs across Northern California. Today Andrew speaks with us about how he became involved with the Willed Body program, what it is, and why whole body donation is important to scientific and medical progress.

dead body and doctor

Credit: huffingtonpost.ca

Kathleen: Andrew, can you explain a bit about the process of donating one’s body to the UCSF Willed Body Program? 

Andrew: Certainly. For most people, the first step in making the decision to donate is to go to our website and read about the program and how it works. We provide a downloadable application that interested donors can fill out and return to us that also explains the goals of the program and the various ways in which our cadavers are used.

Even after reading the information offered on our website, however, most potential donors have questions and concerns, so we encourage them to call our office directly and speak to me or one of our program coordinators. Deciding to donate one’s body to science is a momentous decision, and we want people to be completely comfortable with the process before they decide to move forward.

Kathleen: Does the form need to be notarized?

Andrew: No, but two witness signatures are required. The witnesses must be over 21, and we prefer that one of them is a family member. According to California law, the other witness must be a “disinterested” third party with no familial or legal ties to the donor.

Kathleen: After the donor signs and returns the donation agreement, what happens next? 

Andrew: After UCSF receives the application, we review it to determine if the applicant is a suitable donor. If they are, we send a letter accepting the donation along with a donor card.

Kathleen: Once the donation agreement is signed can the donor revoke his consent?

Andrew: Absolutely. Consent can be rescinded in writing at any time.

Medical students in anatomy lab

Medical students discuss anatomy in UCSF lab
(Credit: Susan Merrell)

Kathleen: Are there any exclusion criteria for donation, such as age limits or medical conditions that would preclude a donor’s body from being used?

Andrew: Yes, although there are far fewer than many people think. For instance, there is no upper age limit for donors, and the only medical conditions that prevent UCSF from accepting a donation are Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, tuberculosis, hepatitis B or C, and HIV/AIDS. Due to the nature of the embalming process, we also have an upper weight limit of 250 pounds.

Kathleen: What about bodies that have been autopsied or sustained severe trauma — for example, in a car wreck?

Andrew: Unfortunately, we cannot accept bodies that have sustained extensive trauma. Typically, this includes bodies that have been autopsied.

Kathleen:  Is there a way that a person can donate his body to the Willed Body Program and also donate an organ or organs to patients on the organ-transplant list? Or are the two programs mutually exclusive?

Andrew: Not at all. A person can be an organ donor and still participate in whole body donation as long as he makes his wishes clear. That’s one reason why we strongly encourage our potential donors to speak with their families about their bequest and make their wishes known in their Advance Directives and their wills.

doctors perform surgery

Doctors often perfect surgical techniques using donated bodies

Kathleen: Speaking or survivors and loved ones, what should they do when a person who has made a bequest to the Willed Body Program dies? 

Andrew: The next of kin, executor of the estate or hospital personnel should call the Willed Body Program as soon as possible after the death. A short delay of a few days does not preclude our using the body, but it is best that we receive it as quickly as possible. If the death takes place in Northern California, the program will arrange and pay for transportation of the body to our facility. If the person dies elsewhere,  we may arrange for the body to be transported and donated to another University of California facility, with the family’s consent.

Kathleen: Can a person donate the body of a loved one after death? 

Andrew: Yes. If a loved one dies without signing a donation agreement, the next of kin can donate the body to the Willed Body Program. Because time is of the essence, anyone who wishes to do so should call our office as soon as possible after their loved one dies.

Kathleen: Lastly, Andrew, do you have any tips you can offer our readers who may wish to participate in the program at UCSF?

Andrew: Yes. Here are a few suggestions to help the process go more smoothly:

**First and foremost, complete the application as soon as you have made your decision to donate. It’s far easier to facilitate the process in a timely and sensitive manner if you register in advance.

**Communicate your desire to donate your body to your spouse, children and the executor of your estate.

**If you have not already done so, complete your Advance Directive and make sure your loved ones know where it is kept.

Kathleen: Thanks so much, Andrew. I appreciate your taking the time to share this information with our readers. 

Andrew: You’re very welcome.

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Our Weekly Tip: Protect Your Family Against Fraud After A Loved One Dies

Notify credit cards companies and credit reporting agencies to protect beneficiaries
Woman getting her mail to be sure of no fraud

Credit: mymailplace.com

Our Tip of the Week: Even when a death is expected, there is always a lot of paperwork and communication that needs to take place when you’re settling a loved one’s estate. Collecting their mail will let you know which bills need to be paid and where they had active accounts. This is particularly important in order to prevent fraudulent attempts to use a the person’s identity to gain a line of credit or make charges to their accounts.

Holding fraud credit cards

Credit: Alamy.com

How-to Suggestion: Be diligent about contacting your loved one’s banking institutions and letting them know that the executor or trustee intends to close the accounts. (The executor or trustee is responsible for paying bills incurred during the person’s lifetime from those accounts.) Additionally, send a letter to the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and Transunion — notifying them of the death and instructing them to notify you if anyone applies for a line of credit using your loved one’s name or social security number.

For more useful tips on settling estates, see SevenPond’s After Death Planning Guide.

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“My luck is so bad that if I bought a cemetery, people would stop dying.”

- Ed Furgol
Cemetary with funeral flowers on the grave

Credit: foreversafevases.com

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Children’s Book Review: “When Someone Has A Very Serious Illness: Children Can Learn To Cope With Loss And Change”

Interactive children's therapy book clarifies complicated experiences

Published in 1988, Marge Heegaard’s book “When Someone Has A Very Serious Illness: Children Can Learn To Cope With Loss And Change,” remains widely useful today. This 36-page workbook is a collection of chapters or thematic sections that take a child progressively through the thoughts and feelings that often arise when someone in their family has a serious illness. The exercises include clear, simple questions and ample space for a child to visually express their perspective, illustrating the book as they go. This process is intended to be facilitated by an adult and is appropriate for children age 5-12.

Serious illness and children

Credit: starlight.org

In lieu of a forward, Heegaard includes three brief addresses: a general statement affirming and articulating several ways that adult family members can help children through times of loss and change; a message about how an adult can facilitate a child’s process through the use of the book; and finally a note that directly addresses the child, affirming their autonomy in finding their own way, and providing encouragement in seeking the support of an adult they trust.

Author Marge Heegaard

Author Marge Heegaard
(Credit: linkedin.com)

The information intended for adult facilitators is extremely applicable, empowering family members to take on the complex internal experiences of a child in a practical and evidenced-based way. For example, Heegaard writes, “Take care of yourself and find support to overcome personal fears and anxieties. Children model behavior and coping skills from the adults they live with.” She also notes that a child’s headaches, stomachaches, or behavioral problems may be “caused by repressed feelings,” and suggests the use of this book alongside other “healthy outlets for energy release and expression with creative and physical activities.”

The majority of the book is geared toward the child, beginning with an exploration of the nature of change in the world, in themselves and in the family member who is ill. From there, it progresses to include the nature of illness and the thoughts and feelings that may arise around it, as well as how they can be expressed. There are several pages devoted to understanding how family dynamics shift around serious illness, giving the child lots of opportunities to explore what they observe in themselves and others, and how they might understand and navigate these complicated relational dynamics. Part of this includes understanding the support network of adults already in their lives, as well as providing options and autonomous choice for self-care both alone and within the context of shared family time.

child using coping workbook

Credit: rgbstock.com

While many books oriented toward children that touch on the subject of death and transformation casually use the word “God” as if it were already an understandable and certain thing, Heegaard earns major brownie points here for exercise that begins, “Many people have God, a guardian angel or a higher power for support. Do you have someone?” Offering this awareness of the mysterious, vast and universal without pigeonholing a child into a particular belief system keeps this book accessible and functional across several demographics. Another gold star is awarded for Heegaard’s awareness of somatic experiencing and its value for children. About mid-way through the book, she provides an outline of a human body whereby a child can locate their emotions through the felt sense. Encouraging this level of introspection at an early age, in a way that young children can absorb, has the potential to create a level of awareness in a child that many adults have yet to access.

In short, if you have a child in your life who is coping with the serious illness of someone they love, suggest this book to their primary caregiver or school counsellor. It’s a truly excellent resource, and discounted rates are available for orders of more than 10, making this an affordable option for schools, spiritual communities and anyone working with children in a clinical setting.

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