In memory of Lydia Dwight

Rosemary Hill

  • Architecture and the After-Life by Howard Colvin
    Yale, 418 pp, £45.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 300 05098 4
  • The Art of Death: Visual Culture in the English Death Ritual c.1500-c.1800 by Nigel Llewellyn
    Reaktion, 160 pp, £9.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 948462 16 7

In the early Eighties an Italian family in North London was successfully prosecuted and fined £100 for putting flowers on a relative’s grave in contravention of cemetery regulations: they had impeded the cutting of council grass. The grim reaper had, it seemed, finally given way to the municipal mower as ultimate authority. It is hard to imagine the bewilderment and unhappiness the family must have felt, and impossible not to be ashamed of the nadir in English culture that this episode represents. It has become a commonplace that we no longer know how to deal with death, that it is the modern taboo about which we dissimulate as much, and in similar ways, as the Victorians did about sex.

There certainly seems to be a marked dislocation in our attitude to death. The question is whether this is a failure of faith, or of imagination, or of art. The overwhelming catastrophe of the First World War is often cited as the point at which the British, sated with memorialism, could take no more. And yet, while the dead of previous wars had been buried in communal graves and this had not been considered in any way disrespectful, the British Government decided that all the dead of the Great War, including the unidentified, should have individual graves. The same happened after 1945; altogether 1,135,645 burials. Since then there has been the hospice movement; the middle-class fashion for memorial services, once held only for national figures but now increasingly widespread, and the current attempt to legislate for a right of burial for miscarried and stillborn babies. All of this suggests a continuing, even a growing concern for the dignity of the dying and the dead which is at odds with the appalling banality of modern British memorial art.

Either there is a real contradiction here between the feelings we have and our art that lacks the means to express them, or it is in fact precisely because of our increasing insistence on individualism and democracy even in death, that we are unable to generate a shared visual language, only a repertoire of clichés. This thought was borne out by the recent compilation of a ‘crem top ten’ which revealed that the number-one crematorium tune was ‘My Way’. Maybe our inarticulateness reflects an actual absence in sensibility. In his splendidly passionate study, A Celebration of Death, James Stevens Curl blamed it all on Modernist design. It was, he implied, the fault of the architects that modern life, spent in the tower block and the motorway service station, ends with the crematorium and the black slab that are their aesthetic equivalents.

The more persuasive view – that feeling and expression are interdependent – was put by Kenneth Clark when he suggested that while an art without iconography does indeed fail to find a shape for the beliefs of a society, a satisfactory iconography actually modifies those beliefs: ‘The points of dogma for which no satisfactory image can be created tend to be dropped from popular religious exposition and episodes which have scarcely occupied the attention of theologians tend to grow in importance if they produce a compelling image.’ Modern thinking about death, you could say, is the intellectual equivalent of a block of oasis dug out to spell DAD and stuffed with forced carnations.

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