Writing obituaries for the parish newsletter, there was a feeling at once strange and familiar: how could people who were so much part of one’s life, just disappear? One man had absorbed many hours, a telephone call was never too far away, a visit to his house or to him in hospital was a regular occurrences, and then, without even a word of farewell, he was gone.
The main character of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday reads a biography of Charles Darwin, an experience that both cheers and depresses him:
‘At times this biography made him comfortably nostalgic for a verdant, horse-drawn, affectionate England; at others he was faintly depressed by the way a whole life could be contained by a few hundred pages – bottled, like homemade chutney. And by how easily an existence, its ambitions, networks of family and friends, all its cherished stuff, solidly possessed, could so entirely vanish’.
Lives can disappear in a moment. I remember the words of a distraught parent who once said to me, ‘Go home tonight and hug your children because a moment might come when they are not there to hug’.
Existences can vanish entirely, in an instant, without warning. Shakespeare captures the insubstantiality, the impermanence in lines from The Tempest:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
In college days, the tutor used to say that each funeral should be a preparation for our own; perhaps a similar provision applies to obituaries, perhaps each line written trying to capture the essence of a person’s life should serve as a keen reminder of what matters and what is trivial, of what is lasting and what is transient.
If one had two hundred words to write one’s own obituary, what things might be in it? There is always that nagging feeling that it might be like one of those school reports, ‘could do better’ except, of course, it would be in the past tense, ‘could have done better’ and there would be no next term to try to improve on the assessment.
‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’, Stratford’s most famous son would have written some good obituaries.