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The literature of death and bereavement

A talk given at Ipswich Crematorium’s Open Day by Margaret Nelson in 2003

My mother died suddenly at a party at my sister’s on Christmas Eve, just after she’d demonstrated how to do the can-can to some children. I don’t what they thought about a woman in her mid-70s doing high kicks, but she was very proud of being able to kick her own height. I told her it was time to go because I still had things to do for dinner the next day. She fell with an almighty crash as she lifted her arm to take her coat off the hook by the door. She was dead within the next ten minutes or so, having had a massive cerebral haemorrhage. It was a great way to go, especially after we’d nursed my dad through cancer that same year – he’d died six months earlier – and she’d said she didn’t want to die like that, but wanted to go like her mum, quickly, without fuss.

Robert G Ingersoll

In a way, doing Thought for the Day might be considered good training for a political candidate, as most politicians these days have to present their ideas in as few words as possible. We live in a sound-bite age.

There aren’t many people who can hold an audience in thrall with a speech lasting two or three hours, rather than the two minutes I’m being allowed this morning. I’ve only heard a couple. As an art student, I attended a lecture by the great American architect Buckminster Fuller, who invented the geodesic dome – you can see them at the Eden Project in Cornwall. He spoke for three hours without notes in a small lecture theatre, in a heat wave, but it was fascinating stuff and none of us wanted him to finish, despite melting.

Art & Life

If Sue Lawley asked me to go on Desert Island Disks, my luxury item would have to be a regular supply of chocolate.

It would be more difficult to choose just one piece of music. My favourite varies from week to week. I’ve been listening to a new Hoagy Carmichael CD this week, so Stardust is my current favourite.

And which book would I choose? Again, that’d be difficult, but if I were shipwrecked in the next couple of weeks maybe I’d ask for Staying Alive, an anthology of poems edited by Neil Astley. In the introduction he quotes someone saying, ‘Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.’

Michel de Montaigne

MontaigneI’m fond of quoting the French humanist Michel de Montaigne. He died on the 13th September 1592, but his observations are as relevant today as when they were written.

At forty-two Montaigne had a medal struck with the words, Que sçais-je?, meaning ‘What do I know?’. He’s best remembered today for his essays, where he examined what he did or didn’t know, accepting that we can’t know everything, while questioning everything. The essays were, in effect, his autobiography, but they didn’t give an account of his life in chronological order – I was born, I did this or that, etc. Instead, we get to know him through his thoughts, which are much more revealing than a conventional autobiography.

His portrait on the cover of my ageing copy of his essays, published in the late ‘50s, shows a bald man with a clear gaze, who looks as though he’s thinking about what to write about the experience of being painted. His translator, J M Cohen, describes him as modest, truthful, humorous, and objective. I’ve learned that he was fond of cats. He wrote, ‘When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is amusing herself with me, or I with her?’