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
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

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?