Blog : Posts tagged with 'death'

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The trouble with religion (part 94)

In which we discuss a suitable Sunday topic


The Mother phoned up today, as she does regularly, to tell us all the latest exciting goings-on in her social circle. Her friend George, who she knew from church, has died aged 85, after a long illness. “Of course, he’d been ill for years,” she said, “and he was in great pain. By the end he was screaming. ‘Take me, Lord, take me!’ It was a blessing when he died.”

When it comes to religion, The Mother is a great fan of this sort of logic. If The Family Car Crash Of 1988 ever comes up in conversation, The Mother will no doubt say something along the lines of “You had such a narrow escape! It just proves that God was looking down on us.” Now, it’s true that I almost lost a) my life b) an eyeball;* but I’m not sure God deserves much in the way of credit. It is fair to argue, though, that the Family Car Crash Of 1988 was a Good Thing: the insurance windfall paid for a piano and a university education.

You can’t really argue, though, that taking the life of an old man after he’s had a long and painful illness, so bad he begs you to kill him, is a good way for any deity to behave. If God really wanted to bless a man who had been a devout churchgoer all his life, a churchwarden and church committee member for many years, someone who every Sunday had been up at the altar receiving the body and blood of Christ devoutly believing that the said God had personally told us all to do this every week,** if He had really wanted to grant him a boon, wouldn’t he have saved him the several years of pain and suffering?*** But, no, in The Mother’s religious logic, bringing the death after George had been calling out for it loudly for a while is the kindly Godly way to behave, not letting him die after a short illness a few years ago. It leaves me thinking: just what does count as compassion, for the religious?

* Strangely, although my life was saved by a pretty narrow margin, I never realised until many many years later just how close I’d come to being killed. Instead, I concentrated on the irony that my eyeball was probably saved by my poor sight, as the thick plastic lens in front of it absorbed the impact of the shards of glass that hit me. With extra irony, the sight in my other eye is almost perfect.

** Although of course, Jesus didn’t want me for a sunbeam do it on a Sunday morning.

*** Let’s not get into the tragic story of George’s wife, either.

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Obituary

In which the cat, finally, is not going to return


The phone rang on Saturday morning, and The Mother was on the end. “I’ve got some bad news,” she said.

As a conversation opener, it’s not exactly ideal; but it is, at least, straight to the point. “What is it?”

“The cat’s died.”

The cat has been in The Parents’ care for the past 18 months or so, ever since we moved down to Bristol. Nevertheless, he was still always My Cat, and there was always the thought that one day he might move back in with us, once we had a house in a cat-friendly area (check) and cat-flap-friendly doors (uncheck).

Cat at Christmas

My dad found him, on Saturday morning, stretched out dead just inside the cat flap. No signs of injury. The night before, he’d been happy, relaxed and purring; the parents did not try to find out why he had died. He was about a month or so short of his tenth birthday.

Sad to think that I’ll never again be woken by him climbing on top of me and miaowing. He was, I always thought, an unusually intelligent cat: it’s hard to be sure, but I’m confident he understood at least five or six words of English, and when he was a bit younger he regularly wanted to play fetch. He also managed to survive three months living wild, a few years back, after The Mother lost him en route to the vet. Maybe there will be other cats one day, but they’re all distinct.

In a few months time, I might suggest to The Parents that they take on a rescue cat, because I’m sure The Mother is going to miss having him around the house. For now, though, I’ll content myself with getting annoyed at the random neighbourhood cats that dig up our back garden; and remember lying back in bed stroking one cat in particular.

Cat

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Death

In which we try to stay rational


Now I know that, according to tradition or superstition or some ancient charter, the deaths of the famous are always supposed to occur in threes. But just recently, there’s been an enormous flood of them. It’s seemed this week that every day yet another well-known person has turned their toes up. I know it’s just coincidence, because I do have a rational side; but sometimes you do think: what, another one?

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Recycle

In which we look at the concept of eternal rest


In the news recently: the government is making moves to reuse old burial plots, to deal with the problem of overcrowded graveyards. People are, naturally, a bit shocked at the idea of disturbing one’s eternal rest, especially given the synchronicity between this news and the reburial of Gladys Hammond.

However – and I bet you could tell I was about to say this – the idea that the grave represents your eternal rest is a relatively new one, dating from the late 18th century. It’s in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that all the world’s great cemetaries were opened – Old Calton Hill in Edinburgh, designed around David Hume’s mausoleum; Highgate; Kensal Green; Père Lachaise; the Glasgow Necropolis. Prior to that, the grave was normally a temporary place of rest, unless you were an important person.* After noone around could remember you, up came your skeleton, to go into the local charnel house.** In The Name Of The Rose, set in the 14th century, a charnel house (of sorts) plays an important part in the plot.*** The most famous example, nowadays, is probably the ossuary in the Czech town of Kutná Hora.

All this seemed to change in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people started to think of the grave as the eternal resting place. Possibly this was connected with the rise of rationalism – people started to care a lot more about the treatment of the body after death, when previously they’d been confident that the treatment of the soul was more important. It led, in turn, to the modern funeral industry, described by Jessica Mitford in The American Way Of Death**** and Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One. The body has become the overriding focus of funeral rituals, and we forget that only a couple of hundred years ago, exhuming the skeleton and reusing the grave was the normal way of life and death.

* If you were important enough to be a saint, of course, bits of your body could end up all over the place.

** Somewhere I have a book of traditional English folk-tales, in which the parish charnel house often plays an important part – persuading someone to go inside at the dead of night, with someone in there already pretending to be a ghost, and that sort of thing.

*** Spoiler: it’s also a secret passageway (highlight to reveal).

**** Originally published in the 1960s, but with a sequel written in the 1990s.

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Torn curtain

In which we wonder about the motives behind sacrifice


As it’s Good Friday, good Christians everywhere should be eating fish and following the Stations Of The Cross. I’m not any sort of Christian, good or bad, but even so it’s a good day to think about self-sacrifice for The Cause, whatever that happens to be.

Of course, whether that’s what Jesus did is a moot point. It’s debatable whether the crucifixion even happened; even if you believe it did, was it more an act of self-sacrifice or self-promotion? An awful lot of Jesus’s acts in Scripture have an air of deliberate planning about them. The prophets had said: the Messiah will go out and do X; therefore, Jesus went ahead and did those things. He was like some modern evangelicals and millenarians, deliberately trying to push history into a sudden new phase by carrying out others’ prophecy.

So, self-sacrifice, self-advancement or self-promotion? You could ask the same question about Malcolm Kendall-Smith, dismissed from the RAF and sent to prison yesterday after he declared that as he thought the Iraq was illegal, he would not fight in it. The judges at his court-martial, however, ruled that by the time he received his orders the legality or otherwise of the original invasion was irrelevant.*

Kendall-Smith has sacrificed himself, and his career – he said himself that the RAF was one of the great loves of his life. The judge, however, accused him of being more interested in self-promotion: of trying to make himself into a martyr for the cause. I’m not in a position to judge this myself: my own best guess is that he wasn’t, but he should have realised that that accusation would be made. Whichever is closer to the truth, it’s a strangely apt story to appear in the headlines on Good Friday.

* The Guardian article suggests in one paragraph that the judge ruled that members of the services aren’t allowed to dispute something’s legality: if the government says something is legal, those orders must be followed. However, that wasn’t something that the ruling itself relied on.

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Unrelated things

In which there is both good and bad


Two small things today, because I’m too sleepy to write more.

Firstly, some lovely photos of the dying Glasgow Subway in the 1970s.*

Secondly, reading the paper at lunchtime, I turned to the obituaries to find that one of my favourite writers, Jan Mark, died recently. Although she was known as a children’s writer, her “adult novel” Zeno Was Here is a lovely novel, and one of my favourite books. I’ll write more about it soon.

* Link via qwghlm.co.uk

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Still not dead yet?

In which we try not to anticipate things


I can’t help but feel slightly sickened at pre-obituaries – the endless news reports on the life and actions of famous people who are dangerously ill. It didn’t seem too bad during the slow death of George Best,* but the coverage of Ariel Sharon’s stroke has been terrible. As I’m writing Sharon is in a coma, but definitely alive; but for the past day or so every news report I’ve heard has been about how Middle-Eastern politics will change after he is gone – or, even worse, what his impact on history has been. These really are just obituary reports under another name.

(yes, I know they have a partial excuse that he’s almost certainly retiring – but even so, I still don’t think it’s right)

* or maybe it was just drowned out in my mind by the volume of post-death tributes

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Sudden

In which we come to terms


The last couple of posts make me sound like an old curmudgeon. I try not to be.

Too many people have died this year. When you’re in your 20s still, you don’t expect people your own age, people you know, to go. A dead friend comes at you like a kick to the ribs.

In the past six months, two people I got to know from the Sinister mailing list have died suddenly and unexpectedly, in very different ways. The second death was yesterday: sudden, unexpected heart failure. We hadn’t been in touch for a couple of years, but even so to know she’s gone was a sudden, nasty shock. I keep thinking of all the greetings and apologies that I should have said, but didn’t.

I’m not sure that I should be posting this picture – I’m not sure that it’s what she would have wanted. I want to show you it, though, because I think it shows what a lovely, lively person she was.

Amy

Rest in peace, Amy.

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