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.
A little while later I found a poem in an anthology called ‘The Long Pale Corridor’, published by Bloodaxe Books, and although the circumstances were different, the dramatic exit it described reminded me of mum. I told a client about it a while ago – her mum had made a similarly dramatic exit in a dentist’s waiting room, and since she’d been an attention-seeker all her life, my client thought she could almost have planned it. Anyway, this is ‘The Going’ by Bruce Dawe, which he wrote for his mother-in-law, Gladys.
Mum, you would have loved the way you went!
One moment, at a barbecue in the garden
Ã¢â‚¬â€¢ the next, falling out of your chair,
hamburger in one hand,
and a grandson yelling.
Zipp! The heart’s roller blind
rattling up, and you, in an old dress,
quite still, flown already from your dearly-loved
Lyndon, leaving only a bruise like a blue kiss
on the side of your face, the seed-beds incredibly tidy,
grass daunted by drought.
You’d have loved it, Mum, you big spender! The relatives,
eyes narrowed with grief, swelling the rooms
with their clumsiness, the reverberations of tears, the endless
cuppas and groups revolving blinded as moths.
The joy of your going! The laughing reminiscences
snagged on the pruned roses
in the bright blowing day!
I like the bit about ‘laughing reminiscences’. We often have laughter at Humanist funerals, as people are told stories about the person who’s died. That’s as it should be; laughter and tears are close at times like these.
We use poetry in our funerals because it often expresses human experiences so well, in ways that people will recognise and identify with. Sometimes people might say they’re not ‘poetry people’, until we point out a poem that they like, to their surprise. Poetry isn’t boring, not if it’s good. For non-religious funerals, it’s far better than bible readings that have little relevance to the situation. However the Bible isn’t all religion. There are some parts, like the wonderfully erotic Song of Solomon, which don’t seem to belong. Though some Christians might disagree, the Bible isn’t a book, it’s an anthology, and the parts don’t all seem to fit the whole. Ecclesiastes is another book in the Bible which has relevance to the religious and non-religious. These lines may be familiar; they’ve been adapted from Ecclesiastes III, 1-8. They express a fatalistic, realistic view of life and death, which has been adopted by many writers and poets throughout history.
For everything there is a season,
And for every activity under heaven its time:
a time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to uproot;
a time to pull down and a time to build;
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time for mourning and a time for dancing;
a time to seek and a time to lose;
a time to keep and a time to throw away;
a time to tear and a time to mend;
a time for silence and a time for speech;
a time to embrace and a time to refrain;
a time to hurt and a time to heal;
a time to love and
a time for peace.
Personally, I like those poets who adopt a matter of fact approach to death. We all die, and accepting this fact might help us to make the most of life while we can. The great Latin poet Horace was born in the year 65 BC and died 57 years later. His maxim – Carpe Diem, or ‘seize the day’ – was brought to the attention of many through Robin Williams’ film, ‘Dead Poets Society’. This a translation of what Horace wrote:
… Life’s short. Even while
We talk Time, hateful, runs a mile.
Don’t trust tomorrow’s bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now.
The 16th century French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne, who loved his cats and lived well, had a similar attitude. He wrote,
Wherever your life ends, there it is complete. The value of life lies not in its length, but in the use we make of it. This or that man may have lived many years, yet lived little. Pay good heed to that in your own life. Whether you have lived long enough depends upon yourself, not on the number of your years…
The English poet and composer Ivor Gurney died in 1937 in a mental hospital. I don’t know when he wrote this, but he must have been reasonably sane at the time.
The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,
And there grow flowers
For others’ delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.
So there’s a warning – soon comes night – that we’re all mortal. I know that some people don’t like this. They imagine that there’s some other life, an ‘afterlife’, so that we’re not really mortal at all. Of course, this idea may comfort some, but it doesn’t comfort me. I once had a discussion on Radio Suffolk about this with an evangelical Christian who told me that he believed God had responsibilities for him after he died. I think I said that we’d have had enough of responsibility when we’re dead. There are many people who’ve had far too many responsibilities in life, so how unfair it would be to find there were more waiting for them. If anyone asks me if I think there’s a life after death, I say ‘I hope not’. I can’t imagine anything worse than being condemned to spend eternity in some place where I probably won’t be able to choose my companions. My mother believed she’d be reunited with her mother when she died, but I never asked her who else she thought might be there? She wasn’t especially keen on her father, for example.
The Hispanic-American philosopher George Santayana speculated about such things in ‘The Life of Reason’, where he wrote:
It would be truly agreeable for any man to sit in well-watered gardens with Mohammed, clad in green silks, drinking delicious sherbets, and transfixed by the gazelle-like glance of some young girl, all innocence and fire. Amid such scenes a man might remain himself and might fulfil hopes that he had actually cherished on earth. He might also find his friends again, which in somewhat generous minds is perhaps the thought that chiefly sustains interest in a posthumous existence. But to recognise his friends a man must find them in their bodies, with their familiar habits, voices, and interests; for it is surely an insult to affection to say that he could find them in an eternal formula expressing their idiosyncrasy. When, however, it is clearly seen that another life, to supplement this one, must closely resemble it, does not the magic of immortality altogether vanish? Is such a reduplication of earthly society at all credible? And the prospect of awakening again among houses and trees, among children and dotards, among wars and rumours of wars, still fettered to one personality and one accidental past, still uncertain of the future, is not this prospect wearisome and deeply repulsive? Having passed through these things once and bequeathed them to posterity, is it not time for each soul to rest?
Even if you don’t agree with me about such things, you might agree with me that, whatever we believe happens when we die, we should make the most of life. This is a fundamental principle of Humanism, as we don’t think we can assume that we’ll get another chance to finish any unfinished business if we don’t do it now. Not that I imagine I’ll ever be any better organised than I am now. As John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ Still, I’d like to be remembered as someone who did her best at whatever she’d been doing. Some people have done more than that. They’ve given much more than anyone had a right to expect of them, and sometimes I have to conduct funerals for people who’ve witnessed the most unimaginable horrors in wartime. Mostly they haven’t talked about it – men who were born at the beginning of the last century were taught that boys don’t cry, nor wear their emotions on their sleeves. There are poems I’ve read at such funerals that might help younger members of their family to understand what happened to them. This is from an anthology of 2nd World War poetry called ‘The Voice of War’. Many of the poets were killed in action, such as Sgt. Pilot E. Linmar, who wrote this poem on the 12th August 1940, the day before he was posted missing in action.
If I never live again,
This day will always be,
A rapture of my soul,
A treasured memory.
If I go down ere night,
At least this day I knew,
With all its combat wild,
In skies of azure hue.
Old Time, with cruel scythe,
Sends all memories to decay:
Yet, neither Death, nor Time,
Can ever steal this day.
If I never live again…
When you hear stories like that, it humbles you. I try to be kind and patient with people who complain a lot about very little. I tried never to ask someone I used to know how he was, because if I did, he’d tell me a tale of woe about all his ailments for at least half an hour. Secretly, I called him Marvin, which wasn’t his real name, because he reminded me of the paranoid android in Douglas Adams’ brilliant radio series, ‘The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’. It’s OK to moan and groan a little, but not to make it habit. The danger there is, of course, that if you get really ill, no one will believe you. Not long ago, I conducted a funeral for a woman who’d been such a hypochondriac that when she was dying, no one noticed until it was too late.
In Letters from a Father to his Son, John Aiken wrote about differing attitudes to life:
It may, I think, in general be observed, that the greatest lovers of life are persons of sanguine temperament, engaged in active pursuits, full of projects for futurity, readily attaching themselves to new objects and new acquaintances, and able to convert every occurrence of life into a matter of importance. On the other hand the phlegmatic, inactive, dubious, desponding, and indifferent, as soon as the warmth and curiosity of youth are over, frequently become careless about the remainder of life, and rather consent to live on through habit, than feel themselves much interested in the continuance of their existence.
I had to go into hospital the other day and when they were filling in the forms I was asked what I did. I said I was a Humanist Celebrant, and they said, ‘What’s that?’ It’s a common reaction. Religious ministers do funerals, but they’re expected to – it’s part of their job. When we do it, sometimes people think it’s a little odd to choose to do something like this. One of my friends used to peer intently at me as she asked, ‘But are you all right?’ She was convinced that I could crack up any minute, because of the nature of my work. Well, of course I’m all right, or I wouldn’t do what I do. It’s fascinating, and I feel privileged to meet so many people from all walks of life and hear so many life stories.
When the writer Somerset Maugham was dying, he told his nephew, ‘Dying is a very dull, dreary affair,’ then he smiled and said, ‘and my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.’ It’s interesting how attitudes to death have changed. An increasing number of people are choosing to die in their own homes and avoid going into hospital, but not long ago many people would have as little to do with the whole business as possible. In the 18th and 19th centuries things were very different. The mortality rates were higher. Most women had large families and many babies died. People were laid out at home. The headstones in parish churchyards were often inscribed with descriptive or witty epitaphs, very different from the ones we see today, which are often heartfelt but unimaginative. For example, the grave of Lydia Eason at St Michael’s in Stoke bears the inscription:
All those who come my grave to see,
avoid damp beds and think of me.
Another, in Staffordshire, has a sad but confusing rhyme:
Here lies father and mother and sister and I,
We all died within the space of one short year;
They all be buried at Whimble, except I,
And I be buried here.
I like the epitaph for a working man in St Britius’ churchyard at Brize Norton:
My sledge and hammer lies declin’d
My bellows too have lost their wind:
My fire’s extinct my coals decay’d
And in the dust my vice is laid;
My days are spent my glass is run,
My nails are drove my work is done
There are lots of sad stories, and sad poems to suit the occasion, but funerals needn’t be all gloom and doom. They were during Victoria’s reign, but she made a career out of mourning and everyone joined in. She wore black, but few people wear black for funerals these days. Only a few weeks ago I did a funeral where many of the mourners wore brightly coloured Hawaiian shirts in honour of the deceased, who’d been a keen camper. So I shall end on a lighter note, with a popular poem by Joyce Grenfell:
If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well.