Madeleine Pennington reflects on the need to rediscover shared places for appreciation for the spiritual and relational elements of death. 07/02/2022
Over the last two years, the British public have been asked to make the most heart–wrenching sacrifices – a collective trauma endured by all, enjoyed by none. Funerals have been missed, dying relatives have been unvisited. Every family has been marred by what we have been through.
The pandemic has been many things to many people, changing our lives in ways that would have been unimaginable two years ago, and affecting everything from social lives to the housing market. Yet while pockets of normality have tentatively opened up for many of us, others are left grieving loved ones – and with them a ‘normal life’ – that will never return. The Independent Commission on Bereavement launched last summer estimated even then that the pandemic had left an additional 375,000 bereaved, and of course the death toll has risen steadily since. Keir Starmer’s parliamentary speech in the notorious Sue Gray debate (quoted above) reflected on the scale of this tragedy. More than anything, this has been a time of coming face–to–face – collectively and as individuals – with the painful realities of human mortality.
Perhaps this experience has been especially haunting for a society as bad at talking about death as ours (as Theos plans to explore further in future research). Of course, some people deal with it every day: doctors, end–of–life professionals, faith leaders. But for the most part, modern Britain keeps death behind closed doors and at arm’s length. In our youth-obsessed Western culture, we are simply not required to think about it until someone close to us dies. Just 36% of Brits have written a will, and only 21% have talked about their own death with someone else. This is even more surprising in an ageing society: how we die is changing, and set to change further. Such dissonance also inevitably rears its head, unacknowledged, at the level of policy – the most obvious recent example being how the social care crisis continues to rattle politicians on both sides of the Commons. As Giles Fraser noted last September, “Death… is the political issue we are not talking about.”
These shortcomings were reiterated last week by the recent findings of The Lancet’s Commission on the Value of Death (coincidentally published on the same day as the Sue Gray Update). That Commission called for a “rebalancing” of society’s approach to death, and called out the paradox of a society in which death has become over–medicalised for many, even as many others die without access to necessary healthcare. It bemoaned that “healthcare is now the context in which many encounter death… as families and communities have been pushed to the margins, their familiarity and confidence in supporting death, dying, and grieving has diminished. Relationships and networks are being replaced by professionals and protocols.” In turn, it set out five principles for a vision of how death and dying could be better navigated; perhaps the most striking is that “dying [should be] understood to be a relational and spiritual process rather than simply a physiological event”.
So, we are bad at talking about death. But that isn’t to say we have lost all sense of what a good death – or indeed, a bad death – might look like. After all, the most profound moments in the Sue Gray debate itself were not dramatic political quips, but the quiet recognition (and in some cases, direct testimony) of the pandemic’s desperate impact on the normal course of grief. The “collective trauma” induced by missed funerals and unvisited friends and family. The unspeakable horror of a 13–year–old boy dying alone and without his parents (Florence Eshalomi MP, Lab./Co–op). The strain of saying goodbye to a dying colleague through a window (Hannah Bardell MP, SNP). The all–too–common experience of a funeral at which nobody could offer the comfort of a hug (Aaron Bell MP, Con.).
Take a step back from the raging politics, and it is this vulgar contrast – between the love and meaning we naturally invest in the final moments of life, and the easy disregard for, well, everything – that really stings.
I am reminded of Philip Larkin’s observations while visiting an empty church:
…someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
There is, as Larkin acknowledges, a “seriousness” about death which fosters natural respect, bowed heads, wisdom. And through this lens, it seems we intuitively sense that restoring standards in public life must refer to something bigger than not–telling–lies or greater institutional accountability. Both are vital in a healthy democracy, but it is the violated sense of shared solemnity that we feel is the greater crime. As actor Rory Kinnear expressed so devastatingly in grief for his own sister, “I am… haunted by the tinkling of those glasses there on that sun–drenched night, the echoing of their thin laughter… Their actions feel like direct assaults in the face of my family’s, and all of our shared national, tragedy.”
In fact, Kinnear admitted that he also broke the rules by sitting in a private garden with his mother that day – “but we reckoned it was the least our grief would permit”. Judging by the outpouring of compassion in response to Kinnear’s reflection, it was not the rule itself that really mattered to the British public in the end, so much as what it signified. Grief brings with it a unique perspective.
Our behind–closed–doors approach to our own mortality does not therefore itself demonstrate a lack of baseline appreciation for the spiritual and relational elements of death, just as the root problem in our politics is clearly not the integrity of one man alone. In both cases, as a society we actually know what we think is important; the last few months, and Boris Johnson’s current standing in the opinion polls, illustrate that much. We are, despite ourselves, spiritual and relational beings. More, the problem is that we just don’t know what to do with this knowledge. We aren’t sure how, or where, or why, to express it.
Perhaps this is why we find ourselves locked into an increasingly inconsistent, anxious and untethered public life, in which there must be a rule broken for something to count – even when we know that the ultimate problem is not institutional or legal at all. (By the way, the same goes for the farce of demanding the resignation of a previous Health Secretary for “breaking social distancing rules”, with no public acknowledgement of the other infidelity he so clearly demonstrated.)
In the end, we cannot rely on rules to fix our political mire, just as we cannot expect healthcare professionals to create the conditions for a good death alone. Instead, we must gravitate to “more serious ground” and rediscover those places in our public life where we can say “this matters”, without waiting for the Police, the politicians, the professionals, to tell us why.
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