Death: The Great Adventure. Either the most exciting sentence ever written – if, um, true – or one spitting bitter, sarcastic brimstone, probably written near the writer’s end, while surely rather scared and angry. And how we approach the end, for most of us do have the time to “approach” it, if we’re not so unbearably unfortunate as to be mown down in a random instant, can say a lot about how we have lived our lives.
About 1,800 people will die in Britain today. Worldwide, 70,000 over a 12-hour span this Sunday. Dying is something we, as a species, do a lot, even if we keep evolving better ways to keep from doing so. It’s all around us, not least just under our feet. Where the National Gallery now stands, on what was once a tiny burial ground for St Martin-in-the-Fields, an estimated 70,000 bodies – about the same as our worldwide death toll today – are packed on top of each other.
They were packed on top of each other in different times, of course. When death was part of the weekly lives of most, particularly the poor, and communities would join in assisting the laying-out of the body. In the 200 years since Dickens’s birth, we have changed drastically our attitudes to death; and today, in 2012, things are beginning to change again.
In the 20th century, squeamishness bloomed. Partly because of advances in medicine, particularly the understanding of hygiene: these kept many more people alive for much longer but concomitantly left the rest of us less willing to look, to hear, to think about it, when someone did succumb. Then, in the 20th century, the teenager was invented, not that long after the Victorian cult of childhood had been invented: golden innocent children replacing, for many, God, in an age of exponential secularisation. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the slow combination of the two made us increasingly fearful of the end – and with fear comes denial, horror, flight. If it ever was mentioned, any humour surrounding it would be as black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat. Britishly, we became a generation of deniers.
Yet more and more of us are today accepting the challenge to confront own deaths. And to do so with style, honesty, and a humour which is not black. New ideas abound of celebratory, individualised send-offs, and I wanted to find out more about this “new death”: maybe even plan a funeral, a kind of designered last day which might let some people who quite liked me share a smile or a story or a glass.
The idea had seemed fun at the time. Of course, the more I thought about it, seriously thought, the deeper, darker and substantially less “fun” it became. As soon, however, as you begin to think clunkingly seriously, 4am seriously, about it all – who the day is really for and, perhaps more crucially, what happens to me when the world’s door slams shut behind me, and, if I don’t have another chance to live, have I left enough good things or good thoughts to live on a little? – well, I tell you, those spirallings drive a soul to insomnia…..