Coincidentally: For Whom the Bell Tolls

As part of its game plan or the Third Millennium, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has sanctioned cremation. Previous Church practice had been against this, except in emergency situations, such as the much-exaggerated Spanish Inquisition. The bishops predict an increase in the number of dead people. With greater specificity, the Scottish poet Thomas of Erceldoune (c. 1220-1297) predicted the death of King Alexander III (d. 1286) and the Battle of Bannockburn (1314). The French physician and astrologer, the crypto-Lutheran Michel de Notredame (1503-1566), was right on the mark when he said Henry II would die in 1555. The Oxford clergyman Robert Burton (1577-1640) played a medic in his potpourri of learning, The Anatomy of Melancholy, and dated his own death ten years before the melancholy event. If it can be argued that the coincidence was psychosomatic, dying is a flamboyant way of being correct.

Wedged between the generations of Alexander III and Henry II is the matter of Timur Lane’s tomb. We know this rapacious descendant of Genghis Kahn as Tamerlane, as we know Michel de Notredame as Nostradamus. It is tempting to speculate whether Tamerlane drew on the mysticism of heretical Christians; some of the family of Genghis Kahn, including his grandson Hulagu, had been converted by Nestorian missionaries among the Tartar Onguts and Vighurs north of the Yellow River. There was even a Nestorian bishop in Beijing when it was called Cambaluc. And all this because Emperor Li-Shih Min admitted the Nestorians into China 63 years before Pope Sergius baptized the king of Wessex, Caedwalla; 63 A.D. happens to be the traditional year of St. Paul’s release from house arrest in Rome. Anyway, having conquered Persia, Central Asia, and breathtaking stretches of Russia, India, and Asia Minor, Tamerlane chose to be buried near his birthplace in Samarkand, Turkey. The fatal year was 1405. He ordered the epitaph: “If I should be exhumed, the worst of all wars will overwhelm this land.” At 5 a.m. on June 22, 1941, Soviets uncovered Tamerlane’s remains. At the same hour, the German army crossed the Russian border.

That surpasses the coincidence of Oct. 4, 1981, the bicentenary of Rome’s ex post facto condemnation of Nostradamus, when the body of Lee Harvey Oswald was exhumed, 50 years to the hour after Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herdon arrived in Wenatchee, Washington, from Japan in the first non-stop flight across the Pacific Ocean.

In 1894, Count Haman told Lord Kitchener, then a 44-year-old sirdar of the Egyptian army: “I can see nothing but success and honors for you in the next two decades. You will become one of the most illustrious men in the land. But after that your life is at great risk. I see a disaster at sea taking place in your 66th year.” In 1916, aged 66, Kitchener drowned in the sinking of the “Hampshire” off the coast of Orkney. As the ship sank, a hatchment in the home of Count Haman broke in two. Churchill had berated Kitchener for violating the sacred shrine of the Mandi in the Sudan. The Mandi’s tomb had a warning: “He who desecrates the graves of religious leaders will perish through water floods and the place of his death will never be known.”

How can one resist speaking of a “curse” without some supernal bondage to empirical principles? Take “King Tut’s Curse.” The fifth earl of Carnarvon, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux, funded and worked with Howard Carter in excavating tombs of the XIIth and XVIIIth dynasties, exhuming the remains of Tutankhamen from their glittering sarcophagus. When the earl died from an infection in 1923, his pet terrier stood on her hind legs, howled, and collapsed dead. Even allowing for the histrionics that are characteristic of many terriers, this behavior astonished sanguine observers. As the earl and his terrier died, all electric lights in Cairo failed. The highly regarded Cairo Electric Board was never able to account for the blackout.

Then there are clocks. The great clock over the entrance to Tiffany’s (still extant over the Fifth Avenue entrance to the present building) stopped on April 15, 1865, at 7:22 a.m., the moment Lincoln stopped. The clock in the bedroom of King George VI did the same during the night of February 5, 1952, when the king died of a coronary thrombosis.

Having pursued a difficult subject with delicacy, I must refrain from cliché and not remind the reader of what John Donne said about the tolling bell. Like the curious incident of Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not bark, more telling is the bell that will not toll.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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