Melanie McDonagh: The professional unbeliever strikes again

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the New Statesman that he had considered entering the ordained ministry, but was deterred by the unfortunate circumstance that he did not believe in God, so he invested his career in politics with the same moral fervour as a religious vocation. He took the ethics of Christianity with him when he abandoned the church and they never really left him.

But there he was, in his coffin, in St Giles' Cathedral, with the choir singing the 23rd psalm. What was he doing there? Was it posthumous hypocrisy for his life and death to be celebrated in a place where the only way of looking at death is "in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection"? Can atheists have a church funeral, without doing violence to their unbelief?

Lots of contemporary Brits wrestle with the same dilemma before deciding that a church makes for a kindlier atmosphere in death than a mere gathering at the crematorium. All the talk of dying and rising in Christ is curiously potent in its power to console.

Perhaps Mr Cook deserved the benefit of the doubt - he believed once, and the hospitality of a Christian cathedral could be extended to him by virtue of that early faith. And if his family are Christian, their wishes ought to count for something.

But there are grave doubts whether the same latitude should be accorded the man who presided over Mr Cook's funeral, Richard Holloway, the former primus of the (tiny) Church of Scotland. This is a man who has described himself as a "recovering Christian" (you know, like "recovering alcoholic"?) and has turned the profession of religious doubt into a way of earning a living. He paid tribute at the start of the service to Mr Cook as a "Presbyterian atheist" and paid tribute to the "moral seriousness and flinty integrity" that this brought with it.

In many ways, Dr Holloway's views are identical to Robin Cook's - he believes you can take the ethics of Christianity and leave the doctrine - belief in God, the Incarnation and Resurrection - alone as "consoling fictions". Yet Dr Holloway still draws a pension as a retired Bishop of Edinburgh and presides over Christian funeral services in fancy Episcopal vestments.

"Flinty integrity" isn't a description that fits the ex-primus. Robin Cook had the courage of his unbelief. It is more than you can say for Richard Holloway.

Black? It's fashion, silly

Talking of funerals, isn't it horrid to know that black is back? I refer, natch, to this coming season's autumn/winter collections, in which black looms large: see this month's Vogue and Harpers & Queen magazines. Just as you'd thought that black had died a death in the early Nineties, now we can look forward to another bloody season when women look into their wardrobes and find it covered in widow's weeds.

There's no denying black is handy - doesn't show the dirt and there's no trouble about co-ordinating it with anything else. It's still a weird sort of aberration in our culture that we wear a colour which in most sentient societies is reserved for bereavement.

Weirdly enough, the other motif for the coming season's fashion is Victoriana, so that means black as in jet jewellery and black feathers, like British court ladies after the death of Albert. When Coco Chanel introduced black - and she was one of the first - for recreational daywear, she was being pretty scandalous, given that this was just after the First World War.

The same can't be said of contemporary designers. "So what, as a society, are we in mourning for?" I asked my friend, the fashion director for InStyle magazine. "Don't be stupid," she said. "It's just fashion being silly."

* * *

So, Kelly Taylor, a terminally ill woman, has ended her "right to die" protest, which took the form of a voluntary hunger strike. She had waited nearly 10 years for a heart and lung transplant, but was taken off the list two years ago after doctors told her the risks were too high. Funny that - surely it should have been for her to decide what risks she was prepared to take?

Anyway, driven to desperation by the restrictions imposed by her condition, she decided to promote the cause of euthanasia by denying herself food, as the only means of self-slaughter which would not require her husband to risk prosecution as an accessory.

But after 19 days, she gave up. As she told the Bristol Evening Post, "it had become too uncomfortable and I would not wish what I have been going through on my worst enemy". Fair enough.

But doesn't that put into sharp relief the position of Leslie Burke, a terminally ill, former postal worker, who went to court to ensure that when he becomes unable to communicate, because of his condition, he will be guaranteed both nutrition and hydration as he dies?

That petition was opposed by the British Medical Council and by the Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt, on the grounds that such "treatment" would impose unreasonable demands on the NHS. He is now considering an appeal.

As Miss Taylor has pointed out, going without food is dreadfully painful - and she didn't even have to go without drink. But she was able to deal with her distress by eating some baby food when she felt desperate.

People in a vegetative state, or who are otherwise unable to communicate, may well feel the same discomfort, but in their case, the decision whether or not to give them food and water is down to their carers, doctors and family. It's an anachronism, the cruelty of which Miss Taylor can now testify to. Let's get this straight. Food and hydration aren't treatment; they're the basic care you'd give to a dog.

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