The English taboo
Today is the first anniversary of my father’s death. Had we been an Irish Catholic family, living in normal times, there would have been an anniversary Mass attended by family and friends with, probably, a cup of tea and cakes back at the house afterwards. In England, in abnormal times, in a non-religious family, there is no ceremony which might recall the day he died.
The lack of any observance to mark the day arises from the fact that death has long been a taboo subject in England. It has reached the point where people will not use the word. When I wrote last year to the Office of Veterans Affairs to say my father had died, I received a response saying, “please accept out condolences in regards to the passing of you farther”. More annoying than “your father” being misspelt, as “you farther,” was the use of the word “passing.” Passing what? Dad didn’t pass, he died.
Our forebears did not have such a problem. In the churchyard at Street in Somerset, one inscription on a headstone seemed particularly blunt, “set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live.” The deceased had been buried in 1895, his frank acknowledgment of mortality would be unfashionable in the present times.
Until the late Twentieth Century, when the Church of England introduced its contemporary language liturgies, there was no such thing as a “funeral” service in the Book of Common Prayer, instead the language was blunt and uncompromising, there was an order for “The Burial of the Dead.” There was felt to be no need to spare people from the truth of what death meant, word such as “though after my skin worms destroy this body” made clear the fate that awaited.
Perhaps the disappearance of Christianity from the English consciousness has contributed to the reluctance to discuss death: belief in the hereafter did help people cope with the pain of leaving here.
Is all the avoidance of the issue good for us? Perhaps the Book of Common Prayer was unduly harsh, but in the quest for sensitivity we have swung to an opposite extreme, pretending that the harsh reality of death is something other than what it is.
Death is never something that can be coped with through euphemisms, how can people cope if the truth of their pain is not acknowledged? Sensitivity is important, but so is reality. “Thou shalt die and not live,” it happens to us all.
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