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Reflections upon a Hawaiian Graveyard

Joseph Campbell and Jean Erdman, 1955. Joseph Campbell Foundation.

I am standing in a Hawaiian graveyard looking down at the final resting place of Joseph Campbell. My wife is in the car with our eleven-month-old grandson, waiting. Waiting for me to come to some sort of conclusion about why one of the greatest mythologists of the last two centuries is buried beneath a looming statue of unambiguous Christological intent: Beard, tunic, quote from Matthew 6:33. I, too, will probably be surrounded in death by such theologically familiar touches. But then, I am not Joseph Campbell. I am not the man who did more than any other since, oh, Aldous Huxley and his perennial philosophy, to utterly erase distinctions claimed by orthodoxy and exclusivist religious authorities, always showing how the publicly opposed actors upon the sacred stage are secretly united behind the scenes. Talk about blurred boundaries (our theme this month).

We drove here because I googled “Joseph Campbell’s gravesite,” and there it was—five miles from our Airbnb. 

I don’t know what sort of epiphany I expected. You know what would have been a nice touch? Maybe a statue of a finger pointing to heaven reminding us, as Zen teachers are known to do, that we must not mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.  Campbell put it this way: Religious expression is always metaphoric, it speaks in symbols that are only relevant when they are “transparent to transcendence.” So what did I expect?

Signage. I’ve heard that there are placards indicating the route to Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. I see none, so I locate the small office outside of the historical crematorium and seek guidance. The young man is friendly but businesslike as he consults some photocopies. He hands me one with a route outlined in yellow. He opens the door and points: Down to the lane, turn left, and from there, “follow your bliss.”

He said that. As threshold guardians go, I’ll take this guy.

I expected to find myself standing in a field charged with symbolic intentionality. I did not expect a garden variety garden. I did not expect Jesus. And I asked myself a question, or maybe I asked Joseph Campbell a question.

What gives?

In that moment, I saw intention. I saw myself transformed into one of Campbell’s favorite archetypes, Parsifal, him of the question that must be asked. Parsifal stood, not in a cemetery, but in its more kinetic cousin, the ritual. According to Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal, the lad had only to ask one question: Whom does the grail serve?

Or, in my translation, what gives?

I asked and I was not disappointed. In life, Campbell surrounded himself with the symbols and signs from which he drew the conclusion that the boundaries between faith traditions are always effaced in the pursuit of transcendence. In death, he was surrounded with another symbol set and it spoke just as loudly of a subject even closer to his heart—his capacity to love and to be loved.

Not only does he share a space in a cremation garden with his beloved, Jean Erdman, his Iseult, his

Eurydice, they lie within concentric rings of signification, each powerfully reinforcing the idea that this man is happily subsumed into a shared identity. This is not a Campbellian shrine, it’s the Erdman/Dillingham family plot, located not in Campbell’s Manhattan, but in Jean’s Oahu. 

Jean was Campbell’s student at Sarah Lawrence, but the idea that this represents a power differential is not borne out by subsequent chapters of their love affair in which her career as a globally recognized dancer and choreographer eclipsed his own nascent notoriety. These were binary stars, these two, as his placement in a small corner of her historical reality attests, one Campbell among three generations of Erdmans in the land where she grew up, “doing what we all do here, which is dance” (Hero’s Journey, p. 97).  “I never thought Joe would want to move to Hawaii, but here we are.” 

Indeed, here they are. In The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, their union is celebrated as mutually fructifying, not mutually exclusive. Near the end of World War II, Joe and Jean were staying in Nantucket where, in her words, “Joe was writing about the fifth version of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and I was deciding what the art of the dance really should be, right?” 


Campbell speaks lovingly of the first half of marriage as a time when the anima is in full flower, when the projection of the female from the mind of the male meets a sweet horizon in the youthful figure of grace that is the beloved. And he speaks lovingly of the second half of marriage, the “alchemical marriage” where the projections are slowly withdrawn to reveal an even more apposite pairing of two spirits. 

Jean lived to be 104, three decades after Campbell’s death, and is reunited here, in this Hawaiian haven, with the man who spent their first years “with [me] on one arm and Finnegan’s Wake on the other.” She dealt wisely with the sweet rivalry by turning James Joyce’s masterpiece into a dance. 

“My notion of marriage,” Campbell reflected, “is that if marriage isn’t a first priority in your life you’re not married” (Hero, p. 101). With this in mind, I suddenly remember I have left my own wife sitting in a car with my grandson. I snap out of my reverie and happily invite my little family to come join me. 

Here we go, Johnny. This is the grave of Joseph Campbell and his wife Jean Erdman. 

I point. My grandson is eleven months old. He does not look at the grave. He looks directly at my finger. Just my finger.

Joseph Campbell would have loved it. 


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