He went to open an art show
I’m just turning 72. I don’t expect short of an accidental interaction with Fate that I shall die particularly soon; but you’d have to be an incredible optimist to assume at that age that you’ll notch up anything like another seven decades.
And you’d have to be a fool to want to.
One decade might do it, or a tad more. That’s reality. And reality, when we’re discussing death, is conspicuous in its absence in our soft, complacent and entitled western world. Where our mental graffiti reads: “Euphemisms Rule OK!”
Every living entity will die. And looking at that process rationally, you’d have to say that that’s a good thing. It’s a natural cycle. To reverse the usual form of that vacuously irritating aphorism, without death there can be no life.
This year has been a shocker for the otherwise rational – but of course by chance sometimes untimely – passage of celebrities from Gaia to Oblivion. We live by vicarious means where celebrity is in the picture.
Yet as the metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) asserted …
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
In this take on life and death, death’s role is that of a slave, to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men. It is an agency of other factors, not a self-motivating actor on the stage of life. It is not to be feared.
This year, and last, I’ve had some personal connection with death, in a family context. It’s always awful for those who are left behind, who are yet to take ship for their own final passage.
But it doesn’t do to be mawkish. My mother, dead these past 15 years, wouldn’t have a bar of that. She remains among my most powerful interlocutors. Some might suggest this is tomfoolery, but it isn’t. An inspiration that lives within you, and with whom it doesn’t seem in the least mad to have a present tense, present-day conversation, cannot be dead in the sense that we are invited, schooled, conditioned, to understand the term.
What would enrage my Mum is the modern fashion to euphemise the process. She would steam at the ears if it were to be said that she had passed. She died. We gave her a good send-off and had a party afterwards. We thought she’d like that. I’m sure we were right. She was always a G&T girl. We did the same for my Dad. He was a whisky man.
Death at the end of a long, or reasonably lengthy, life is no surprise, or shouldn’t be. It’s tragic when people meet their deaths in an untimely way. There are many thousands of now former lives (in Aleppo, just for example) that might take a view on that, if their murderers had allowed them that opportunity.
This murderous factor operates in the singular too. The Russian ambassador to Turkey went to open an art show. He didn’t expect to end up as an obscene corpse on the floor, the victim of some mad Turk.
That’s a vital perspective we’ve somehow lost. John Donne again:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Most of 2016’s dead people (including those of Aleppo or of the Russian diplomatic corps) are not celebrities. They didn’t pass. They did not slip away. They did not move to eternal rest. They are not sleeping peacefully. They were killed. They died in horrible circumstances. They might have died in what could be seen as perfectly normal political circumstances (perfectly abnormal perhaps). But that says much more about their still extant fellow human beings than it does about them.
They are the ones who should be in our focus – they and all the other victims of political chicanery and economic abuse, whose corpses briefly litter the earth and may be photographed before they’re forgotten, and which then return to the elements from whence we all spring.
Life is a cycle. When the chain breaks, or someone or some thing breaks it for us, we fall off.