De Mortuis

Christopher Driver

  • The Ruffian on the Stair: Reflection on Death edited by Rosemary Dinnage
    Viking, 291 pp, £14.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 670 82763 0
  • Death, Ritual and Bereavement edited by Ralph Houlbrooke
    Routledge, 250 pp, £35.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 415 01165 5
  • In the Face of Death by Peter Noll, translated by Hans Noll
    Viking, 254 pp, £15.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 670 80703 6

If the Sixties were the decade for penis power, the Nineties are already designed for turning up one’s toes, and at the risk of proclaiming myself as the Fiona Pitt-Kethley of the crematorium, a paid lyricist to fin-de-siècle obsequies, my muse is waiting. I am just about old enough to find myself mourning friends and colleagues younger than myself (a vicissitude endured by my mother, now 92, for a quarter of a century, but that’s the occupational disease of her gender). I took my own mocks for the death examination on a January mountainside a few years ago by observing a little stroke, and I can confirm that hearing is the last sense to go before black-out.

A certain self-distancing curiosity about medical, clerical, liturgical and psychological issues to do with death management doubtless has roots deeper than I care to explore, but my late father used to make a point of reading Jeremy Taylor’s ‘Holy Dying’ to alleviate the Christmas ordeal and his father was orphaned as a baby. Chance put Geoffrey Gorer’s pioneer study of Death, Grief and Mourning (1965), dust-jacketed in tasteful purple, into my hands for a review. An assiduous hymn-singer, I had long realised that centuries other than ours had different views on the subject, especially when I came across Charles Wesley’s verses (written in August 1744 on the morrow of a Cardiff Methodist’s funeral) whose rollicking anapaests were widely reprinted for congregational singing:

Ah! lovely Appearance of Death!
   No Sight upon Earth is so fair
Not all the gay Pageants that breathe
   Can with a dead Body compare.
With solemn Delight I survey
   The Corpse, when the Spirit is fled,
In love with the beautiful Clay
   And longing to lie in its stead.

My current Guardian occupation and living wage (a black-humoured task dreamt up for my convalescence by the well-named Richard Gott) arrived 22 years late: in 1968 I sent a memorandum to the then editor proposing a daily warts-and-all profile of a man or woman lately dead – in other words, a Not-the-Times obituary column. Now it is universally agreed in the four serious dailies that a good death enlivens an otherwise dull day. Indeed, it is often a shrewd journalist’s last assignment – by timing his or her own demise, preferably over a bank holiday with a picture on file and a book of memoirs in the library, or a contemporary at hand with a few good stories to tell about the subject’s foibles.

This can be overdone, of course. After the recent death of one hack – an admired hack, but all the same – about three thousand words appeared over eight different by-lines in the course of several days in the same journal, which could now be rechristened in Private Eye as ‘The Indescribably-Burying’. But not for the first time, British journalism has stolen a march on its American counterpart with the general loosening-up in obituaries – a cartoon here, a corrective shin-kick there to a hagiographer (Vanessa Redgrave’s recent funeral oration on Gerry Healy, the Lothario of the Trots, provoked widespread merriment in subsequent columns).

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