On facing death
Silly ideas come into the head sometimes, absurd ones, like, couldn’t there be a moratorium on people dying? Couldn’t the world just stop at a certain point one day and just let there be some happiness? Couldn’t there be a time when no-one would be told that they had only weeks left, when there were no more funerals? Couldn’t there be a time when there was no more need to say, “Sorry for your trouble”.
Do you know what the most untrue line in fairy tale is?
It’s not the talking animals, or the magical events, or the dragons and the witches; the most untrue line in any fairy tale is the last one: “And they all lived happily ever after”.
They don’t. They don’t live happily ever after. They might live happily for a while, but they don’t live happily forever. They die.
Perhaps that’s the best part of the story, the forever bit – there being no shadow; no mortality; no ageing; not even the slightest wrinkle upon the face of the princess. It’s an escape from what we know intuitively to be inevitable. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz puts it like this:
We have no control. None at all. . .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.
Is it the existentialists who say that we only truly live when we face death? Perhaps my failing is to try to escape from the existentialist reality in which we live our lives.
The early Church had more confidence than I have, Paul writes to the church at Thessalonica,
. . . we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
and John the Divine, writing from Patmos, has a vision of a world without death,
God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Fairy tales and drama and philosophy and Scripture may cope with death in different ways, yet none of them make easier the reality of death itself. None of them take away the pain at standing beside the coffin of yet another person at whose table you had sat, with whom you had shared stories and laughter, whose funeral you had hoped would come long after your watch had ended.
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