My sister sent me an email, advising me that she had moved Mum into her new Home. So far so predictable but at the foot of the email was one of those little grey paperclip things and hidden behind the little grey paperclip thing a disconcerting photo, of my mother peacefully asleep in her new bed, in her new room, and my sister with her hand resting on Mum’s forehead being photographed by – whom? Godmother and I agreed, there was something spooky, even gruesome about it.
It’s not that I do not know what my mother looks like now, in her 87th year and suffering from dementia; how her face has thinned and yellowed and her smile has gone. I saw her only last weekend after all. I fed her a belated Christmas Dinner and wrote a post about it. It’s worse than that. It’s two things:
Firstly (my sister couldn’t have known this, but if she had it wouldn’t have stopped her) it reminded me so much of the painting on the cover of one of my old paperbacks of metaphysical poetry. It’s a mourning painting. Sir Thomas’s fine white hand beneath a frill of stiff white lace, rests on a skull. People are ranged around in their best-black-and-lace, looking mournful but resigned. The deceasing lady is propped up on many pillows, only her head and shoulders visible. And unfortunately, my sister had managed to mirror that exact pose in her smartphone snap.
Secondly, it reminded me of all those wildlife programmes where a vulture inspects the corpse of some recently slaughtered elephant or wildebeest – avidly, thoughtfully – as if debating whether a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or maybe a handful or two of chives might be a good idea.
The fact that associations like this are made my mind is shocking, even to me. Why do I – why even can I think such things? Couldn’t I switch off this poeticising, or in this case anti-poeticising, facility when appropriate? The answer is no. This sort of brain doesn’t switch off; there’s no editing what goes into it, no stopping it from ‘seeing’. And what it has seen can never subsequently be forgotten. It’s what makes people like me able to write. It’s what forces us to write, to exorcise what we cannot but see and know. It’s what makes living difficult.
Whilst on the subject of death (might as well get it all over in one post!) I am reminded of those roadside floral tributes, and my parents’ attitude towards them; also to funerals.
My mother in particular despised those bunches of flowers people nowadays tend to sticky-tape to lamp-posts or thread through the links of chain-link fences at the exact spot where a close relative had died. She hated how the flowers were renewed, month after month, year after year, “littering up the place”. What she really hated, I think, was the naked expression of grief. To my parents a death meant a cremation, as soon as possible. It meant a funeral service in a modern chapel with no embarrassing tears or screams of anguish, as characterless and forgettable as possible. After that, that was that, done with. The person, done with. Rarely mentioned again.
I like the flowers. I sometimes walk along the seafront passing all those memorial benches people have donated, and stop to read how Gerry loved to play the guitar or how Sid the taxi-driver is now driving the angels around in heaven, in a shiny white taxi. I love the bunches of flowers and imagine the relatives coming here, with a fresh bunch and a fresh card, and having a little chat with Gerry or Sid.
I like graveyards; when I worked in an office I used to eat my lunchtime sandwiches in one. On a sunny, summer’s day there is less to be afraid of in a graveyard than in the whole of the rest of the world. The dead enjoy your company. They appreciate a little chat every now and again. And did you know that you can talk to any dead person in any graveyard? They will always make themselves available even if what remains of their bodies is on the other side of the country.
I always found this sanitised modern death difficult. I longed for great black Victorian hearses, pulled by black horses and festooned in black lace. Brought up in the lowest possible church, and that most conformist of social groups the upper working class, my instincts are entirely Catholic and Gothic. I need those swinging censers, the trails of incense, the solemn faces, the cascades of tears, the wailing and the beating of breasts. I need the man with the black hat walking in front of the coffin with his mace and his black-crêpe streamers.
And I need a place to go to be with that person. I do understand the allure of the exact spot where someone died. I know that the lost one may still in a sense be there, exactly there. Magical thinking, of course, but I know that where they went up they may, in a sense also, if earnestly implored, and if they choose, come down. Their ghost is anchored there. This is their own place, their little ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ as that poem puts it.
Let us not deprive people of their magic, if magic is what they need to process the horror and the loss. Let’s not sanitise it all and cut out the ritual, if ritual is what people crave. My parents would have said – but the dead person isn’t there any longer – what’s the point of going to all that expense and – more importantly from an upper working class perspective – making all that unnecessary and embarrassing fuss and show – showing off like that?
But rituals are not intended for the dead, they are for the healing of the living.
Featured Image: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife: John Slouch