Much possessed by death

I glanced at a newspaper article about clowns and noticed one line which I thought was funny (which was one line more than I would have expected in anything to do with clowns.)

A middle-aged female clown, giving a straight-faced account of her background, said her parents and grandparents had worked in circuses, doing acts like tightrope-walking and the flying trapeze. ‘And,’ she added, ‘my husband is still connected to the entertainment business. He plays the organ in a crematorium.’

I think my amusement had something to do with nerves; it’s difficult to deal with death and if we can find a joke in it, its all the funnier for being a relief.

I’ve been thinking much about death recently, having attended (though mostly to make up the numbers) a conference of the Leeds Bereavement Forum, of which my partner, Lynne, is a trustee. There were entertaining (which is the right word, unlikely as it seems) talks on the art of death from the old masters to modern photography by a psychotherapist, JudithHodgson, and on the practical and emotional lessons learned by a father whose student daughter died of cancer aged 20. Ian Leech is now Community Involvement Officer at the charity, Dying Matters, which works in schools, collages and community groups to clarify and improve attitudes to bereavement – valuable work in a country where death doesn’t surround us as it used to do.

We’ve largely forgotten the rituals used to cope with it – except for me , who has sometimes made a fool of himself by being the only person at a modern-minded funeral (‘We are here to celebrate the life, not mourn the death’, etc) to turn up wearing a black tie. I’ve decided that the rule should be that if the man in the coffin, usually on the grounds that he’s over 80, would have worn a black tie given the choice, then so should I.

Not that my funeral tie is black. It’s a very dark blue, but church and crematorium lighting isn’t usually good enough to show me up and I take comfort in the fact that I’m not such a traditionalist that I think there’s any sort of eternal verity in mourning clothes adopted by the Victorian middle and upper classes at a time when the people who needed them most frequently couldn’t afford them, death rates being shockingly higher in slums and crowded terraces than in villas and mansions, a fact made very plain at the bereavement conference venue, the Thackray Medical Museum at St James’s Hospital, Leeds - although I have to admit that I don’t understand differential death rates because surely the correct figure for everybody over time is 100 per cent.

The last item at the bereavement conference was a comedy; a one-woman-plus-assistant show starring Ellie Harrison which examined the inadequacies and frequent crassness of the way we mourn by getting the delegates to participate in an anniversary memorial service for Princess Di, which involved them making cucumber sandwiches, sharing death-hugs, pouring wine and weeping uncontrollably. It was true enough to be very funny and shows that drama has moved on a bit since it was thought essential to perform it in theatres, using people who had rehearsed a bit.

One point which was universally accepted by the experts surrounding me was that people should not attempt to shield others from the awfulness of death (not that all deaths are awful) by using terms like ‘passed away’ or, as is carved on many a Victorian gravestone, ‘left this world’. ‘Died’ is always the best starting point.

Incidentally, Lynne and the many other conference-goers who have worked with bereavements affecting children know how terribly difficult their work is, so that treating social workers, therapists, paediatricians, psychologists and others in the field with anything other than awed respect would be wrong for a mere journalist like me.​​

Which hasn’t stopped the right-wing press giving all public-service workers (except those in the rescued banks) a very hard time. This is how hard real public service gets: a father kills a mother as her small daughter watches. Should the daughter, if she wants to, be helped to later see her father in prison? No idea, I’m just a journalist.

Painting by Daphne Todd: Last portrait of my Mother

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