How stories keep the dead alive

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In his autobiography Nikos Kazantzakis tells the story behind his famous book, Zorba the Greek. Zorba is partially fiction, partly history, writes Ron Rolheiser.

After trying unsuccessfully to write a book on Nietzsche, Kazantzakis experienced a certain emotional breakdown and returned to his native Crete for some convalescence. While there he met a man of incredible energy and vitality.

The Zorba-character in the book is based on this man's life; never before in his life had Kazantzakis been so taken by the life and energy of another human being. But mortality doesn't make allowances for that. Zorba eventually died and his death very much disillusioned Kazantzakis: How can such exceptional vitality simply die?

Kazantzakis wrote Zorba the Greek as an attempt to give some immortality to the wonderful energy that an exceptional man had embodied. Zorba cannot be dead. It made for a great book and a great movie, but is that really what makes for immortality?

Does simply remembering somebody or publicly celebrating his life make him alive? And when someone dies, what does happen to that very unique and wonderful energy, vitality, love, colour, and humour that a person embodied during his or her life?

Several days ago, I was at a wake service for a woman whom I had never met. The formal prayer service was followed by a half-dozen eulogies delivered by her family. They were wonderful, warm, witty, colourful, and full of humour.

As these stories were told she became alive again to everyone in the church. We all smiled and laughed and the sadness of her leaving was eclipsed for the moment (and partly forever) as the colour and vitality of her life were again made alive for us. And we weren't just remembering her. We were reminding each other that she was still with us.

It's the same for everyone who dies.

FULL STORY An earthy view of the communion of saints (Ron Rolheiser)

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