Wednesday, 17 April 2013

A Very British Death

Let's face it, it is the one inevitable fact of living a life. No, it is one of two - we are born of woman and we will die. 

It all started (or appeared to start) in the summer of 1997. I don't think anyone will forget the reactions of those who were there. I speak of what Paul Sheppy refers to as The Diana Fest - the phenomenon of extreme displays of emotion at the funeral of a famous person. For me, that woman in the crowd's visceral shriek as the coffin of the Princess of Wales emerged from the cathedral will remain the symbol of that whole experience. 

For those who don't remember, the death of Diana Princess of Wales was a tragic and still unexplained event where the mother to our future King was killed in a Paris under-pass in the company of the man she was regarded to be in a relationship with following her divorce from the Prince of Wales. Conspiracy theories grew (largely, it is said, because of the single-minded efforts of Mohammed Al-Fayed - the father of the man in the limousine with Diana and the other person who died that day). What was more notable was the extreme outpouring of emotion. The flowers, the tributes, the public memorialising, the hagiographies, the weeping and the almost complete public involvement in the collective grief of a nation was as unusual as it was strange to many. She went from being a much-loved but slightly diminishing public figure to a latter-day saint, a sort of flawed human deity (if you know what I mean). In the very simplest of terms, the reaction was excessive and representative of other factors - then unknown - that went far beyond grief for a person from the news stories.

It didn't stop there. This apparent atypical response to death and those who have died moved to the Wiltshire town of Wootten Bassett where it just so happened that servicemen and women who had been killed in action were repatriated via the nearby military airbase. What started as a simple act of remembrance by other veterans became a national focus where a sort of funeral tourism started to emerge. The soldiers were unknown to the people in the crowd personally, but their deaths and the public nature of their delivery to the next world was a source of yet more significant public outbursts of emotion. Indeed, I have heard it said that that apparent carnival that it seemed to become became a source of some difficulty to the original veterans for whom that was their mark of comradeship in their shared dance with the ultimate sacrifice. 

This last ten days has been characterised not by the death of another public figure, but by the reaction to it. Those reactions ranged from a dewy-eyed hagiography to the other extreme where even the ordained were reduced to name-calling and outbursts that seem inconsistent with the mandate to forgiveness. In either case, the reactions were often extreme and almost always public. I still find it hard to imagine why people from an apparently civilised nation such as ours would regard it as anything but poor taste to have parties to celebrate the death of an elected public servant, but parties there were. Threats of demonstration at the funeral were also made. I make these comments as one who didn't support that lady's politics though in all truth was barely old enough to have a view on them. 

I have heard it said that the civilisation of a country is measured by how it deals with its dead. This seems to make sense to me as one who finds this atypical reaction strange. I write this as one who has lead many dozens of funerals for people whose emotional outpourings were more often than not more measured than those we see in the context of public deaths. I am unsure why this might be, but wonder if it is simply that spend so much of our time, effort and money fighting death and its advancement (let's call it ageing), that when we are forced to confront it, we cannot cope. Multiply that many thousands of times over and we start to see this strange response to the inevitable, and one that moves grief from the act of giving to one of an act of receiving. When we grieve for someone who has died, and as in passion of any sort, we hand over ourselves to that emotion. What I see is people claiming a stake for themselves, thereby creating a sort of strange contest in the level and intensity of outburst. 

It is easy to sit and state the problem, but harder to come up with a solution. This very day I sat with a lovely family and prepared one of their own for her imminent death. I encouraged them to talk about what was about to happen, to celebrate with their loved-one while she still may have been able to hear them. In simple terms, we spend so much time pretending that death is an apparition and can be dodged, that we don't see it coming. On our parish website I placed a simple and probably flawed page that attends to the need to prepare for our own death - with the implicit demand that families talk about it, plan for it, acknowledge its inevitability. To some that may seem morbid, but I sense that those families who did indeed have a chance to prepare found peace soonest. 

Today, with the funeral of a little old lady who was given her job by us, we see yet another stage in the ongoing phenomenon that appears to be as uniquely British as it is celebrity-based as it is strange and discomforting.  


  1. Hari Om
    An excellent post on a difficult subject. In my professional capacity, dealing mainly with the elderly and having to counsel many on grief management, I advocate "active grieving". This would appear to be what you are also recommending. I agree that this brings a level of acceptance and 'processing' much healthier than the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    I too was far from being a fan of the honoured today, but in death we are all equal.

    Thank you again. YAM.

  2. I agree with very much of what you have written, particularly with regard to the excessive public manifestation of 'theatrical' grief displayed on such occasions as you mention.
    Something of the same over-reaction was seen on our TV screens much earlier than the death of Diana Princess of Wales, when JFK was assassinated in Texas in 1963.
    It seems that a certain percentage of the population needs these opportunities to display excesses of emotion in order to be seen to have 'feelings'.
    Personally I find them both slightly offensive and decidedly distasteful.
    Real grief for someone we have known and loved is a totally different thing and as you so rightly say, most of us manage to control public displays of that grief in order to spare others embarrassment or discomfort.
    What we do in private is another matter entirely.
    I was not an admirer of the late Mrs T, but would not choose this occasion to express my aversion to all she did and was.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...