Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

by Randall Kenan

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

Let The Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan is a short story anthology about a community in rural North Carolina. This collection was partially inspired by Keenan’s own life, since he grew up in a similarly rural part of the same state. In order to provide a summary of the collection, one must understand that there are separate stories contained within and that a cohesive plot line is not present, although many of the stories share common elements.

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All of the stories are set within the small town of Tims Creek, and many of the characters are motivated by a desire to find meaning in their otherwise unfulfilling lives.

For example, “Cornsilk” and “What Are Days?” both have protagonists who come to terms with taboo sexual relationships. “Ragnorak! The Day the Gods Die” concerns a member of the clergy whose lover dies. “Run Mourner Run” is about a young man who falls in love with the man whom he was supposed to seduce for blackmail.

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This summary will focus on the two most important stories of the collection—the first and last.

“Clarence and the Dead” is about a little boy whom the people of Tims Creek discover can communicate with the deceased. Clarence becomes a psychic medium of sorts, but not without the severe judgment of the townsfolk, who are unnerved by Clarence’s paranormal gift. Townspeople become increasingly concerned after one old man, Ellsworth, grows obsessed with Clarence after the boy was able to channel Ellsworth’s dead wife. Ellsworth appears to be sexually attracted to Clarence, even trying to sneak into the child’s bed at night. The townsfolk attempt to run Ellsworth out of town, but the elderly man dies in the process. Oddly enough, Clarence dies shortly thereafter at the young age of 5.

The titular final story in the collection is also the longest, and it tries to tie all of the thematic ideas addressed in the other stories together. This tale is markedly different in style, as it presents itself as a nonfiction exploration of Tims Creek founding and history. Told from the perspective of James Malachi Green—a character in Kenan’s novel A Visitation of Spirits—“Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” a retelling of the story Green hears from Ezekial and Ruth Cross, the great uncle and aunt of Green.

This conversation also includes clips of letters and diary entries from various townsfolk that lived in Tims Creek at various points in history. One of these is the diary of Rebecca Cross, wife of slaveowner Owen Cross, whose escaped slave Pharaoh/Menes (known by two different names) established a settlement at Tims Creek. In this portion of the narrative, Pharaoh/Menes is painted as the target of Owen Cross’s sexual lust, a fact that Rebecca Cross grapples with in her writings.

Another event recounted in this text is the story of how supernatural forces shaped Tims Creek. According to Ezekial, a preacher from out of town summoned dead spirits to terrorize the town, which was saved only by Pharaoh/Menes’s ghost—who then curses the town with a wildfire that destroys everything. This story is a difficult one to follow, since Ruth often contradicts Ezekial’s version of events, and Kenan uses mock-footnotes from a writer that also contradict the version of truth as it is presented. Ultimately, “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” becomes an allegorical representation of how history is recorded, and it questions who should be in charge of that process.

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