The word necropolis etymologically means “city of the dead”, but its everyday definition is “cemetery” or “burial ground”. In the penultimate chapter of Worlds’ End, the necropolis of Litharge is more literal — a city built from the dead and devoted to the dead, a metropolis of morticians.
It’s an evocative, strangely beautiful idea. Certainly, it’s efficient: with all the corpses and their detritus contributing to the creation and maintenance of the city (once the appropriate rituals have been attended to), Litharge provides a model of sustainability, with one of the best recycling programs in all the Sandman stories.
“Cerements” also presents the most deeply nested storytelling of any yet, with stories within stories within stories within — well, honestly, I lost count. The structure of the storytelling echoes the complexity of the catacombs beneath Litharge.
Life and death are stories, but there is a responsibility to get the rituals right and to pay the proper respect. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the real test of time for all the literatures of the known and unknown universes: that which survives is that which best performs whatever rituals its culture deems necessary, and that which disappears into the realm of the forgotten is that which is most complacent and cynical. Alas, the city of stories is governed by more chaotic laws than the city of the dead.
Though the oldest parts of the city were built from human bones, and the citizens wear the clothes of the dead and eat the food provided as tribute, the rituals ensure that little remains of the actual bodies. What remains are memories, and the masters of the necropolis are those memories’ keepers. Not the same memories as friends and family have, but memories of the last moments of the body. The person is gone; it is the body that is honored in Litharge.
The twentieth century was the time when, in the most technologically and medically advanced places, death lost some of its physicality. More people died in hospitals, fewer died at home. Many people now go through their lives without ever seeing a dead body. This fact affects our stories, too. Dead bodies become more mysterious, more imagined, more talismanic. It is a different world from one where mortality is a common and visible event, where corpses are ordinary objects. If we don’t understand a particular society or era’s ways of death, we can’t understand their ways of life. Tragic tales, grim children’s stories, morbid poetry all seem strange and perhaps even tasteless to a culture where the physicality of death is hidden away in the province of specialists.
Cerements are waxed cloths used for wrapping corpses, and in this chapter called “Cerements”, the dead are wrapped in stories. They are preserved in memory and narrative, they live again in the words of the storytellers. Some have names — Billy Scutt, Mistress Veltis — others are more anonymous, their essence having faded, but their role still remembered.
The tale of the old Necropolis’s destruction offers tantalizing hints and possibilities, and communicates more to us, the readers, than it does to the characters telling or hearing the story. The art exists in a more certain realm than the text. We recognize the silhouettes of the Endless, and we remember some stray comments about Despair in Brief Lives. “Our sister is dead,” the Endless say. “We have come for her cerements, and for the books of ritual which are in your keeping.” The Necropolitans laugh at them and call them mad, and this leads to the revocation of their charter. This tale is told by Destruction within a tale told by Scroyle within the primary tale told by Petrefax. Master Hermas says, “I do not know if Scroyle’s telling has any truth in it or not. Nor does it matter. These tales we tell for the dead are not told to teach us…” The ellipsis at the end lets us fill in the rest for ourselves — we know what the tales are not for, but what they are for is left to our own knowledge and interpretation. Stories, like lives, have various purposes, and may, like death, resist all inquiries of why.
The terms of the Necropolis are those of business: the corpses are clients, the city operates because of a charter. Destruction, the wanderer, says the previous Necropolis fell into disrespect and ennui because its citizens came to regard their work as “a job, not a task. There was no care, no love.” When Scoyle says he and his fellow citizens call the corpses “clients”, Destruction says that is wise. He indicates that it will keep them praying, keep them respectful. It’s a strange point of view, because clients are people who hire you to do something, a job or a task, and why that should lead to a greater sense of respect than otherwise, I do not know. There is nothing that ensures respect in a service culture, as anyone who has dealt with incompetent or rude service providers knows. It would seem more likely that respect, care, and love, would come from a sense of serving something greater than the individual clients — serving a cause or a god. But since Destruction has by this point given up godhood and struck off in search of ordinariness, it makes sense that he would valorize a certain simple capitalism, a system that appeals both to his newfound individualist nature and to the role he abdicated.
In the end, it’s all just stories and memories and legends, shadow lives and half lives. The final page of “Cerements” returns us to the story that has engendered the telling of all these others, and pushes them toward the background, bringing forward the question that lingers over everyone at the Worlds’ End: Why are we here?
The one thing they seem to know is that they are not dead (yet). One woman steps forward with, she claims, an explanation. But that will have to wait for its own chapter in the story…
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.