There is an inside joke at the beginning of Hamlet that few catch. Shakespeare, well known for his wit and narrative charm, deals with religion quite frequently in his plays. This is to be expected given that the turn of the 16th century was rife with religious strife due to the Protestant Reformation. Macbeth was subject to the satirical subtext that taunted Calvinism (particularly the doctrine of predestination) and Hamlet is no different. In the beginning of the play, Hamlet is told that a ghost resembling his father has appeared, a foreboding sign of treasonous dealings in the state of Denmark. The ramifications of Hamlet’s spurious intentions to confront the ghost would have gone unnoticed if the reader was not aware that Hamlet had attended Wittenburg along with Horatio and his chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This is the very same university that lies at the epicenter of Martin Luther, his 95 Theses, and the Protestant Reformation. So Hamlet, a good protestant, would naturally be against the concept of purgatory and the archetypical vengeful ghost. It is a big surprise, then, for him to be confronting the burdened and suffering soul of his father trapped in limbo until his death can be avenged. Here the ghost is out of flux with the perceived order in Hamlet’s mind, for his father’s desecrated memory has caused cosmic upheaval in the universe. Hamlet’s cry of dismay follows:
Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee: I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn’d,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous; and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do? (1.4.39-57)
“Cerements” catches the eye here in this speech. It is the name of Gaiman’s 55th Sandman issue, and finds its origin in this play. If we are to understand the meaning of Gaiman’s mysterious and haunting tale, we must understand the meaning of cerements, their purpose in burial, and how this relates to the issue as a whole.
Cerements informally suggests cerecloth, a waxen cloth used to cover and conceal the form of a body to be interred. The word is far older than Shakespeare’s “cerements,” but the meaning of both terms is preserved in Gaiman’s issue Cerements, which follows The Golden Boy as the next tale at the Worlds’ End Inn. The symbolism of the wax exterior is subject to debate; however, the death mask produced by the settling of the cloth serves to preserve the form of the corpse before burial. It also could have been used as a simple means of protecting the body from the elements, but this is pure speculation. The tale related by Petrefax, a journeyman under Klaproth, and the three subsequent tales framed within that story draw a common theme between one another: the ritual respect for the dead. Here Gaiman deals with death in a way that is different from before. There is no reference to Dream’s older sister or her dealings with souls. Here, the issue at hand is the significance of the burial and how closure is gained from the perspective of the bereaved. Furthermore, the significance of the respect and homage given to the corpse and his/her parent culture is also of value in Lithrage, the necropolis home of Klaproth and his journeymen.
As Petrefax relates in his tale, one day he was summoned as a young student under Klaproth to attend a burial ceremony. After arriving late and witnessing the ceremony undertaken, he spends the afternoon with Hermas, the officiant of the burial, and his associates Mig and Scroyle. The first to tell a tale is Mig, who speaks of his grandfather Billy Scutt, an old world scientist/grave robber who would dig up cadavers to be studied for the advancement of medicine. Though it is not specified what severity of crime is deserving of public execution by hanging, Billy is sentenced to death for his crimes. When he is allowed to live in exchange for becoming the new hangman of his town, the tale deviates and illuminates its message. If the provision of a meaningful burial, and its nessecity, is the core message of the issue, Mig’s tale is an introduction serving to emphasize the importance of a dignifying death. His grandfather, who can empathize with the fear and apprehension of those going to hang, takes a measure of pride in his profession and becomes one of the most efficient hangmen in the town’s history. He does this out of respect for those about to die and his careful oversight offers closure for the soon to be departed. He affords himself this very closure, dying on his own terms, by tricking the lackeys of the town sheriff into thinking he is well enough to continue his duties even on the eve of his death. The irony here is that the very art that extinguished the lives of countless others in his lifetime is employed to save his own.
At the conclusion of Mig’s tale Scrolye reveals his own, which integrates the presence of the Endless into the world of Lithrage and the necropolis. In his tale he relates how one day he met a traveler making his way through Lithrage. The traveler was none other than Destruction on his wayward journeys, though it is unspecified whether this occurred before or after the Brief Lives arc that detailed his final departure from the space-time universe. Destruction reveals to Scroyle that Lithrage is not the first of its kind and that another existed before, where its inhabitants, over the course of thousands of years, slowly grew callous and distanced in their duties. This earns the ire of the Endless who come one day seeking to bury their sister Despair (the first incarnation of the Endless who perished from unknown causes) but are met with cold, distant gazes. Destruction’s message in the tale is that burial serves two purposes. First, it offers closure to the deceased, who lets go of his or her body forever and moves on. Secondly, it offers closure to the family and kin of the deceased, who can also let go and move on with their lives. It is inferred, then, that to disrupt this natural flow of the grieving cycle is grossly negligent. In the tale it is revealed that the preexisting city, unnamed and forgotten, must have been more than 80,000 years old, illustrating that even in the span of endless time, mutability and change are still inevitable. Furthermore, the cities of man have also been mourned for, says Hermas. The detail is subtle, but gives credence to Sandman #51, A Tale of Two Cities, in which it is revealed that human civilization bears unique personalities on their own, and that cities think and feel autonomously. Klaproth says that when all the mortal cities die, his kind too will sing death songs for them, like they do for those they bury.
The third and final tale in the story cycle is the most obscure and impenetrable of the collection. Hermas speaks a tale of his own youth at Klaproth’s side, the two of them serving under the Mistress Veltis, who one night comforts the two boys with stories to help them go asleep. She tells a tale in which one day as a girl she accidentally dropped a vial of embalming fluid and, for fear of her master’s response, she runs deep into the catacombs to escape her impending punishment. She eventually finds herself in a mysterious room that is vacant but filled with a mysterious voice. Though it is unspecified who the voice is meant to signify, the typeset used by Todd Klein in the issue is similar to the typeset used by the voice of Death in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s pseudo-eschatological novel Good Omens. Veltis, who questions the voice, is taught a lesson when her hand is withered, mirroring the fate of Moses in Exodus 4:6, only she leaves disfigured for nearly the remainder of her life. Following the common thread, the message here is to not question death and the mechanism by which death operates. The only explanation for why Veltis, who at the end of her life went in search of the voice one final time, ran out screaming from the catacombs, healed, is that she saw her own impending death. Asking for proof of the unknown can only offer disastrous results.
Hamlet’s actions to find closure for his own father’s untimely death are natural responses to coping with loss, and Cerements introduces a conceptual universe outside of the Sandman continuum where these issues are common place and addressed by the morticians of Lithrage. The secret of the necropolitans, which constitutes the mystery of the city, is withheld at the issue’s conclusion. It serves as the cliffhanger of the arc, which will drive home the final issue. Though Brant Tucker is convinced that he himself is dead, Klaproth disagrees. There is more to this inn than once thought, thereby setting the stage for the arcs final, triumphant conclusion.