The Ruffian on the Stair: Reflection on Death 
edited by Rosemary Dinnage.
Viking, 291 pp., £14.99, April 1990, 0 670 82763 0
Show More
Death, Ritual and Bereavement 
edited by Ralph Houlbrooke.
Routledge, 250 pp., £35, October 1990, 0 415 01165 5
Show More
In the Face of Death 
by Peter Noll, translated by Hans Noll.
Viking, 254 pp., £15.99, April 1990, 0 670 80703 6
Show More
Show More

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).

I am proud to contribute my claw to stripping dead convention from the bones of bogus reverence, as a culture vulture, verb sap. But the development is a product of media competition rather than an actual precipitant of social change. The inarticulate revolutions of secularised sensibility about death took place long ago, as Gorer’s sensitive interviews of thirty years ago show. What has yet to change are the mummified institutions of undertaking and allied trades, and our deficient communal care at and after individual bereavement. The mourners of victims of large-scale disasters do much better, with batteries of lawyers and counsellors lined up, than the widows and children of a routine mid-life coronary or a chap next door who happened to hit the M4 mangle last weekend. Gorer expressed the situation more clearly than do any of the present books: we still do not know how to prepare for a death nor how to mourn one.

In Orthodox Jewish ritual, for an intensive mourning period of about a week, friends are expected to tell stories about the deceased while close relatives fast and listen to this process of recall. Among the reading classes, this oral custom is formalised into a minor art-form, the British obituary. Newspaper ‘morgues’ have to be stocked with the great, the good and the odious against emergency, rather like the tins in Mrs Thatcher’s larder. But the best prose about a person’s character and achievement, even though much of it is written against the clock and as the by-product of a non-literary profession, spurts out vividly with all the other emotions lanced by a death, recent or imminent. There’s more to this than sorrow and a sense of the proper. A tincture of schadenfreude can often be sensed: few obituarists forget that but for the grace of God, they might be today’s subject, not the author.

A good funeral or memorial service, which are themselves separate art-forms, are much harder to achieve in our own atomised society. Funerals, especially, require a well-orchestrated symphony of custom, production (in the theatrical or liturgical sense) and players equipped to play the appropriate roles, minor, starring or extra. (Without benefit of clergy or rather churchgoers, how many readers of this magazine feel able to raise their voices to sing on this or any other occasion? Perhaps that skill too should appear in the National Curriculum.)

Like so much else in Britain, from food to education, the quality of ceremonious attention is undergoing a process of polarisation: for the masses, unchurched and bemused, there is the industrialised line of the burning fiery furnace, with hotel lobby decor and music à la Trusthouse Forte; for the intelligentsia and the upper crust, there is at least a struggle, sometimes successful, to bypass the stuffier conventions of death as their parents earlier escaped those of sex, injecting elements of fantasy, creativity, or matter-of-factness into their ceremonies. The invitation to the recent memorial service of Lord McAlpine included the brisk line, ‘We have taken a large church’ – meaning St Paul’s. On the other hand, the real aristocracy very often still have the worst of it, as the late Laura, Duchess of Marlborough, wrote in her wonderfully candid memoirs, Laughter from the Cloud (1980), about her fourth husband’s funeral: ‘He was laid in the Blenheim Chapel’ – she called the whole house ‘The Dump’ – ‘and the coffin covered in the most dreadful mauve velvet with tassels and the flowers ill-arranged.’

But if the obsequies are awkward, ‘a good death’ in the 17th-century sense, like John Evelyn’s touching description at his mother’s bedside in 1635 – now that is really difficult. One name is common to Rosemary Dinnage’s thanatological anthology of personal views about hopes and fears, and the social-historical essays edited by Ralph Houlbrooke: Roy Porter, the historian of medicine. Both in his recorded conversation with Dinnage, who is a research psychologist by discipline, and in his academic essay, ‘Death and the Doctors in Georgian England’, Porter exhibits a clearer view than most people of what has been and is happening to death management in Anglo-Saxon society.

But he too is far from constructing a theory, practice or prediction. This is not surprising, in the light of both books. Houlbrooke’s essays might almost have been compiled on the principle that if the right key words show up on the data-base (‘death’, ‘graves’, ‘cremation’, ‘bereavement’), we might as well print out what theses we can find – but to be fair, this is a first book-length venture of the Social History Society of the UK, and the choice of topic has its own significance. Dinnage’s book is not only anecdotal, as it has to be, but oddly inconsequential in selection.

This is just to indicate that the books have not been ordered by the literary imagination of a Tony Parker (or indeed of Dinnage’s own writing). Particular contributions are well worth reading: in Houlbrooke, for instance, Lucinda McCray Beier on ‘The Good Death in 17th-Century England’, Jennifer Leaney on the emergence of cremation in the 19th century, Martha McMackin Garland on Victorian Unbelief and Bereavement; in Dinnage, Joseph Malual on his own Dinka people’s spirituality, Piers Vitebsky on shamans and the concept of sonums among the Sora tribe in Orissa – and for a total contrast, Dick Clisby of the London Fire Brigade, whose matter-of-fact accounts of horrific fire deaths (including King’s Cross) ends: ‘I think my decision is I’d like to be cremated. Because it would be nice at the end of it to say, “I’ve fought you all my life, now you can have me.” ’

The secular 20th-century problem or opportunity, posed by Porter, is the British way of death gathering itself for change. Social-historical research into the practice and Weltanschauung of previous centuries can assist our own understanding. In Porter’s work at least one popular assumption is overturned. Well before the fashion for narcotics among the Romantic poets, and before anaesthesia was discovered and used in operations in the 19th century, mid-18th-century doctors were in the habit of easing death by opium. ‘We sometimes assume that our own generation is the first in which our going out of the world typically involves being medicated up to the eyeballs. That would be a great mistake. For the first golden age of the stupefying drug was the 18th century.’ Since botany was not exactly a new science, it is almost as though pain started to go out with the religious wars of the previous centuries. The Enlightenment did not invent the pharmacopoeia, but it did start to question piety’s insistence upon fortitude in one life as the guarantee of bliss thereafter.

Silence remains the British life-and-death disease, in wards, homes and offices, even though it is punctuated by noisy debates in high-minded magazines about particular issues, such as euthanasia or abortion on demand, which blow themselves out till the next time. As Porter puts it, ‘every year we teach American students who come across and do a summer school here, and they spend some time in University College Hospital, and they’re quite shocked by the incommunicativeness of the doctors and the lack of curiosity among the patients ... England is a great place of embarrassment: not just death but everything is more embarrassing in England than anywhere else.’ My wife points out that when she was a medical social worker thirty years ago, persuading a doctor to discuss a gloomy prognosis with a patient was like getting a stone out of a gall bladder. It is not quite like that now, perhaps more because of the relative curability of some cancers than because medical education has actually changed much. At last, too, the philosophy of the hospice movement (controlling pain to leave consciousness intact as far as possible) has yielded an alternative model to gaga geriatrics, and it cannot be wholly coincidental that the last two aged cancer deaths in my circle took place at home. But there again, the necessary resources for buying labour tend to be concentrated among the well-to-do and the educated.

Peter Noll, the author of a thoughtful diary of his last months, was a German-Swiss academic lawyer who was lucky in his family, his friends (including Max Frisch, whose valediction is printed here), his doctors, his Christian or post-Christian convictions, and the time his cancer allowed him for reflection – including his decision at the peak of his career not to prolong his own life by radical surgery. He can be seen returning to the 17th-century assumption that death should be thought about often, not morbidly, but as a kind of sharing in everyone’s winter. ‘What I especially like about theology is its unscientific mix of transcendental speculation, quest for eternity, and temporally concrete moral claims.’

In British society the new or newish other elements that may be altering perception of death and its management include Aids (which, as Porter says, is bringing generations polarised by age into the common predicament of prolonged terminal illness); the cultural pluralism brought about by immigrant communities who do not exhibit the same British stiff upper lip about their rites de passage; and sheer demographic pressure, not merely from the rising median age in the population as we approach the new century, but from the radical character of generations who took for granted the remaking of political institutions in the late Forties and early Fifties, or agitated on the streets and experimented with their lives in the middle Sixties, and will find themselves in the late Nineties with time on their hands still, and the instinct to set off firecrackers in the hushed-up twilight that still passes for Westminster and Whitehall.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences