Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

by Randall Kenan

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

1. From "The Foundations of the Earth":

You're wrong-headed, your church has poisoned your mind against your own grandson; if he had come out to you, you would have rejected him. Wouldn't you?

In this story, Maggie is grieving her dead grandson, Edward. She found out he was homosexual and must now come to terms with this. She is in church, listening to Reverend Barden's sermon with a growing awareness that her Fundamentalist Christian faith has narrowed her worldview. She sits in the church with Gabriel, who was Edward's lover. Through her interactions with Gabriel, she learns to accept her grandson's homosexuality.

2. From "Ragnarok! The Day the Gods Die":

I shall never be purified. I cannot believe You will forgive me, Father, the prophets say your mercy is everlasting but in my heart I know I've run my course, so many many sins.

Reverend Barden delivers a eulogy on Louise, a woman he had a sexual affair with many years before. In the story, his words to the congregation alternate with his own internal reflections. He questions his ability to go to heaven, believing he is not worthy. Since seeing Louise in her hospital bed, he has been haunted by a deep shame over their affair.

3. From "Clarence and the Dead":

Clarence told her she'd die at forty-nine of heartbreak and sugar diabetes. One man came to get in touch with his dead grandmother—we later found out rumor had it that she'd buried gold somewhere on her property.

Clarence develops supernatural abilities to communicate with dead people at the age of four. He communicates with spirits of townsfolk who have been deceased for generations, people he had never heard of before. This story, like many in Kenan's collection, contains magical realism. A sense of intergenerational connection and a mysterious, surreal atmosphere is prominent in the stories.

4. From "Let the Dead Bury Their Dead":

Pharoah's people hunted and fished to live, couldn't clear no land nor drain none; had to be careful with fire. But they survived out in them swamps somehow or nother. Multiplied. Had youngens. Raided plantations. Slaves disappeared. Dry goods disappeared. Livestock disappeared. And they thrived out there in them swamps.

In this story, Kenan creates a fictional account of the founding of Tims Creek, North Carolina using narration, diary excerpts, and letters. Kenan tells the story of Pharoah Cross, who escaped his plantation owner, Owen Cross. Pharoah helped establish a population that grew through childbirth and escaped slaves seeking safe haven.

5. From "Tell Me, Tell Me":

"Now I don't claim to have dotted ever i and crossed every t—any man who does is a damned liar, and Howard, you know it to be true . . . And when all is said and done it is only between you and your Lord with whom you must reckon."

Judge Theodore Sturgis Perry says these words to Reverend Howard Clemmons on Thanksgiving dinner in 1979. This passage comes in the form of a flashback by the judge's wife, Ida Perry. The judge is now dead, and Ida has begun to be haunted by the ghost of a young black man her husband had once beat to death. In the quote, the judge refers to using his power of law in the way that is in keeping with God's own laws of living. However, his murder of a young man had been a grave sin, and Ida is painfully aware of her late husband's self-righteousness.

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