Totenpass

At midnight on November the first, 2020 – the first of the Days of the Dead in Mexican tradition, the night after Halloween when, according to custom and poetic sentiment, the veils between the worlds are thinnest and magic is possible, I consecrated my newly-assembled totenpass amulet. As I write these words, I can still smell the smoke.

The word totenpass is German and it means “passport for the dead”, referring to written instructions for passing through the afterlife, such as were contained in capsule amulets worn in ancient, pre-Christian Greece and Egypt.

I don’t believe in a literal afterlife, so my totenpass instead contains a key section of a particular 19th century poem which holds great symbolic meaning for me, resonant with my philosophy of memento mori ergo carpe diem – “remember death, and therefore seize the day”. I carefully cut the poem from the pages of a 1920s-vintage book inherited from a family friend who died several months ago.

The capsule of my totenpass is antique brass and the ornament is a new brass half-skull crafted by an artist in London. I had a local jeweler drill the holes and decorated and inserted the steel flowers myself. The links are adapted from vintage necklaces and the thong is a simple waxed cord.

The consecration ritual took place beneath a tree in a nearby park, very near the shore of Lake Michigan. I burned some of the leaves that have adorned my memorial altar since the Autumnal Equinox, along with some incense, and smudged the amulet and myself; spoke the words of the poem as I held the amulet up, silhouetted against the full moon; then donned the amulet and performed my symbolic life and death salute. After that I poured out some honey – it was cold, so the honey was sluggish! – onto my fingers, and licked it up, which is an excellent thing to do under those circumstances. Walked home invigorated by the purifying cold and the sudden sweetness of the honey and satisfied at having finally consecrated an art piece I’ve been working on for quite some time.

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