Mortal thoughts

Nov 2nd, 2009 | By | Category: Ministry

Marking schoolbooks on a cold and wet evening, when those who pray for the dead remember All Souls, the telephone rings.  Someone has left a line of fifteen night lights outside the church door.  Two are still burning, the others had been lit, but have been extinguished by the rain.  Inquiries amongst the cub leaders in the Scout Den and the Brownie Owls in the hall provide no clues.  Last night, at seven, we had given thanks for those whom we had loved and lost, perhaps someone has been confused about the date and has come on the wrong day.  It is frustrating.  Somebody has come with their own candles on a cold November night, presumably to remember someone they loved, and no-one has noticed them.

The eleven year olds writing answers in their exercise books about sadness and loss would not have bothered with night lights, they take death for granted.  Some think reincarnation is possible; most think heaven might be a good idea; a couple believe in heaven, one stressing that it is for Christians.

Death is understood, a couple write of grandparents who have died, but it presents no shadow.  Perhaps it is part of our programming, or perhaps it is so remote a concept that it is meaningless.  Maybe death gets catalogued with all the other things that are beyond definition; like the edge of the universe, you know it is there, but there is nothing that makes it comprehensible.

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz becomes bewildered at the thought that life’s end seems programmed into children:

We have no control. None at all . . .  (He paces.) Whatever became of  the moment when one first knew about death? There must  have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. It must have been shattering  – stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be  born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure.

Rosencrantz’ question should have been rephrased,  “Whatever  became of  the moment when one first knew about death, and it became a cause for concern?”  The eleven year olds are unperturbed.  There must be a moment, between the age of eleven and the age of the person who left the candles this evening, when death became something more than just a passing thought in an exercise book.  And yet I can’t remember it.

I can remember knowing about death for as long as I can remember. I can remember my parents going to a funeral when I was five years old and sitting with my aunt waiting for their return.  But there must have been a moment when death ceased to be an abstract, and yet it never occurred to me at all.

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  1. Most children experience death with the loss of a grandparent, some sadly with the loss of a parent. Maybe Primary schools educate children on this topic but a 6 year old I met recently told me that when he grew up he wanted to work in the graveyard digging holes for dead people before they go to heaven.

  2. The concept of death is there, then, but when does it become something that causes concern?

  3. My sister died tragically at only 60, when my own little daughter was four years old. They had shared a special bond as favourite aunt and favourite niece, and she attended the funeral fascinated but not perturbed that Aunty was in that box. The previous Pope died a couple of weeks later, and children in Catholic schools were given a day off in respect, which raised serious moans of why we weren’t Catholics. My daughter then recounted the tale of the assembly where her schoolmates in a CoI school were asked to pause in respect of the deceased Pope and she raised her hand to contribute to the service with this little gem: “we needn’t be quiet too long because the Pope will be fine when he gets to Heaven because when he knocks at the door my aunty Pat will open the door and say, Oh hello Pope do come in, and then she’ll probably make sure and get his tea ready.”

    When does death become a cause for concern – I don’t know, maybe when we start to doubt it’s a journey to another place?

  4. A brilliant story!

    My late mother-in-law used to regard each passing day as “a day’s march nearer home”, she had no doubt about her journey.

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