In one of the most moving of the Greek myths, the Theban princess Antigone is condemned to be buried alive for honoring the desecrated remains of her brother Polynices, an enemy of the people.
During the Nazi occupation of Paris, the French playwright Jean Anouilh presented his version of her story as a metaphor for the French resistance. But then, Antigone has always spoken powerfully to modern artists, as everything from the heroine of an opera to that of a comic book.
I thought of Antigone and all those Civil War Antigones – the Southern ladies who decorated the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers alike, giving rise to the tradition we know as Decoration, or Memorial, Day – as I looked at the front page of the July 23rd edition of The New York Times. The photograph by Vadim Ghirda of the Associated Press shows one of the Ukrainian babushkas, as they’re known for the head scarves they wear – old ladies with gnarled hands, floral print outfits and sensible black pocketbooks and shoes, old ladies who have probably seen more than they care to remember. And yet they do remember. They remember the dead.
This one, weeping, buries her face in a bouquet of pink and red roses with daisies in Grabovo as remains of the passengers of the downed Malaysian jet are removed. After days in which the bodies of the victims were allowed to rot on a train going nowhere while Vladie Rootin’ Tootin’ Putin huffed and puffed and the EU wrung its hands and experts were denied access to the crash site while others looted it, this woman understood what needed to be done for people she never knew. There needed to be prayers and flowers and mourning. The dead needed to be buried not just for the sake of their earthly journey’s completion but for our own, so that our souls are not buried alive, walled up in our humanity.
At the end of the Antigone myth, Antigone – having been walled up on orders from her intractable uncle, King Creon – hangs herself. Her fiancé, Creon’s son Haimon, and Creon’s wife, Eurydice, also kill themselves.
While Creon remains among the walking dead.