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.