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.
Saturday 28 October 1995
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.
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