Book of the Dead

A 13-foot-long scroll was found in a burial shaft in Egypt in the nineteenth century CE, and this was combined with other scrolls of papyrus that scribes copied along with the colorful illustrations and altogether this is known as the Book of the Dead.  This turned out to become one of the most famous aspects of ancient Egyptian culture, because it contained instructions on Egyptian funeral practices and we finally learned how mummies were made.  The book contains numerous spells or magic formulas, that were placed in tombs and are believed to protect and aid the deceased in the hereafter.  It was also full of interesting stories.

In December of 1965, the Warlocks changed their name to the Grateful Dead, because they found out that there were two other bands using that name, one group eventually went on to become the Velvet Underground and the other group became ZZ Top.  The Warlocks auditioned for a record company, but they didn’t get a recording contract as the label wound up passing on them.  Around the same time, their bass player Phil Lesh discovered a record in a store that was credited to the Warlocks, so they knew that they would need get a new name for their group.

Everyone in the group congregated at Lesh’s apartment to figure out a new name, since the Warlocks name was already taken.  Garcia sat on the couch smoking DMT, a hallucinogenic far stronger than LSD, and as normal the whole band all clustered around him, because people were always drawn to him.  When Jerry got up and looked around and he came across the Book of the Dead which was sitting on a book stand with a skull on top of it in between an hour glass and a candle that looked like it was just snuffed out.  Jerry flipped it open, ran his finger down the page, stopped and read these huge black letters, “The Grateful Dead”, and this phrase was accompanied with a folk tale about a heroic figure who encounters people that refused to bury the corpse of a man who had died without paying his debts.  Everybody in the group went, “What?”, wondering how could you be grateful and dead.

A dead body is nothing more than an empty container, it doesn’t need to be embalmed, or dressed up in fancy clothes, or be put on some mournful display, or have its remnants placed in an urn up on the mantle, but caring for the dead has always been part of what makes us human.  Dead bodies are always buried, because rotting bodies have a bad odor when they are decomposing thus making them unsanitary, so they must be put underground.  Humans have decided that lives matter, and they should be remembered and holding a funeral is a way to help a dead person to pass into the next world.  The deceased are buried out of a need to keep them protected from any interference of scavengers or animals who might desire to eat our loved ones.  An old custom involved placing pennies of the eyes of a dead person to be used as the payment to Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, to ferry the deceased across the River Styx, to their destination in the underworld.

In this story, the deceased man was forced to wander the village as a disturbed ghost, because his body was laid out in the open, so he could not find rest.  His spirit was destined to roam on dark and stormy nights, because others thought he was not fit to be buried.  The soul of this dead being was elated when this traveler arranged for the burial of his dishonored corpse.  His soul could now return to the creator, and he would no longer have to stand on the edge of eternal darkness.  His grateful chant would fill the void in order that others may know that in the land of the night, the ship of the sun is drawn by the grateful dead.

The traveler left town when the burial was over, and he found himself in peril when this wall came down an him and his horse.  He was OK and he dismounted his horse and looked at how bad his horse was injured, when he saw blood gushing from its leg.  This strange man comes along and he is able to cauterize the wound and heal his horse.  The traveler felt grateful that this stranger was able to help his horse and he was glad that it was not any worse, as he thought that he might have to put his horse down as that is what was done when a horse has one of their legs injured.  The strange man welcomed the traveler with open arms and then he disclosed that he is the ghost of the man whose corpse he had befriended and paid for his burial.  He said that he was the one who was in debt and then he told the traveler a story which he overheard in the tavern when he was still alive.  This man who he took as a drunk told him that he buried a lot of money in this marsh land and now that the strange man was dead, he was able to see exactly where this money was buried.  He told the traveler the location of where he should dig and he said that this would be his reward for the good deed he did for him.

The story was appropriately creepy, as much in the tradition of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone, however the name was thought to be fitting for their new group, and Garcia thought this was a stunning combination of words.  This chance encounter was one of those moments for him, it was like everything else went blank, and just sort of oozed away, and there it was GRATEFUL DEAD in big, black letters edged all around in gold, which blasted out at him.  Garcia said that seeing the words Grateful Dead on the page was astonishing and truly weird, but he found it to be really powerful.  So Garcia suggested, “How about Grateful Dead?”, and that was it.  Everyone recognized that power, and the name struck a chord of mythic resonance, with a contemporary ring, echoing the past and rippling the future.  Phil Lesh remembered that it hit him like a hammer and it seemed to describe their group so perfectly that he started jumping up and down, shouting, “That’s it!  That’s it!”  Kreutzmann and Weir were more skeptical, but Garcia and Lesh’s relentless enthusiasm banished any qualms, and in December, the Grateful Dead made their formal debut.

There was another entry in the book, which was a poem that read:
“We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night
the ship of the sun
is drawn by the grateful dead.”

Written for Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge #107.

11 thoughts on “Book of the Dead

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