Death has no dominion over the 8.27

Throw away the memento mori. The birth of a daughter prompts Paul Handley, Editor of the Church Times, to some definite and bracing thoughts on mortality.

We are a race of immortals. The thought came to me last week on the 8.27 Thameslink into King's Cross. My fellow travellers had none of the looks one associates with immortality - no one was backlit by the westering sun, no flowing white robes could be seen. But none of them - none of us, I should say - thought they were going to die.

Though this sounds like the start of a disaster novel, the train reached King's Cross without any obvious fatalities. But the passengers were indulging in the modern tendency of squeezing death out of their lives. The Radio 2 poll two weeks ago about belief in life after death was jumping the gun: very few people believe in death. Odd, since nobody has yet found a way of avoiding it.

There are two sorts of evidence for this tendency. One is material. Despite recent publicity drives, one person in three still dies without having made a will, according to the Law Society. Few parents reach any sort of conclusion about who would look after their children in the event of a double accident. The funeral industry still relies on people having to make hasty decisions after a death; otherwise the flat-pack in the shed would have become the norm.

Now, thanks to television, every adult and child sees more deaths - usually violent and unexpected ones - than did the occupants of a First World War slit-trench. But these are not our deaths. It's like curing somebody of their fear of spiders: you show them an unrealistic fictional death; then a real death a long way away; then something more naturalistic, and, before you know it, they're cured.

The type of evidence is spiritual: the silence of the established religion on the subject. I've always rather fancied the "just in case" argument for going to church. No, we can't prove God's existence, but by the time we can, it will be too late. Better believe now, then? Just in case . . . The Church seems strangely reluctant to exploit this argument these days. Maybe they're getting picky about who they recruit, though, judging by the people they have at the moment, it's hard to see why.

Anyway, this is great. Like they said, we're cured. Our hours of licence are short enough; let's not waste them worrying about closing time. Throw away the sandwich board; crush the skull and any other memento mori. Death has no dominion over us.

Why then the assailing thoughts with which I started? My memento mori would be in my lap right now were I not at the word processor. It is, strangely, a skull but wrapped inside the slightly translucent skin of my newborn daughter.

Just why her arrival should knock the lid off such a dark pot of imagination, I have no clear idea. It might be because her skull is so crushable: the proof of life's fragility is in my hands, our adult robustness just an illusion. It might be the number of dead relatives and friends to whom I would have liked to have shown her. Or it might be the shove-ha'penny effect, the advent of the next generation pushing the existing one, mine, that bit closer to extinction. None of these reasons seems somehow strong enough for the violent twist in my perceptions. Maybe it's just that Keats, rather than Eliot, was right about the season of remembrance.

The closeness of death is no illusion. A fortnight ago, a family of four was murdered not five minutes' walk from my offices. They used to sit two pews in front of me in church when I lived in the area. This time last year, two friends, old, but not old enough, were killed in a car crash. The birthday of another friend, also the victim of a road accident, approaches.

Death, of course, is all around, and to lose your filter, which is what this feels like, allows the grounds to mix in with the coffee. But the taste, surprisingly, is sweet, not bitter. The people around, even those on the 8.27, are fragile and precious. Immortals need no sympathy. Knowing, suddenly, that everybody is finite increases the desire to care for them while they are still within reach. At such a time, faith becomes more important, with at the heart of it, a murdered god.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence