A thought

So long as we live — breathe, take sustenance, sleep and rise, work and play, stand in the sun or the rain — we have, every one, something to look forward to. Death.

Perhaps this does not come as breaking news to gentle reader. To some, however, it surely must. Those who are young are more easily shocked; the old have seen it all.

“It was such a tragedy. He was so young!”

The old concur, or will play along with such fatuous observations. (No, tragedy requires a better plot.) One easily understands their motive. (This is not the time, &c.)

We like to assure our juniors that they will live forever. Often we encourage their illusions, as if they were harmless. Like the incredulous who ask about our religious faith, we speak to ourselves half-aloud: “I wish I could believe that.”

There is nothing like a funeral for a young person to bring out this incredulity, from its hiding place behind popular clichés.

“He had all his life ahead of him!”

Did he? Evidently not.

During “feudal week” up here in the High Doganate (the principal reflection was here), I have been pondering our economic arrangements in light of death.

I was much affected, once upon a time, travelling in rural England and in Europe, by the sight of parishes that had formed in mediaeval times. The steeple to mark each village habitation, with its bell; the church congregated beneath; its yard laid out with gravestones. Here were people who lived with death. The agricultural life compounds it: the sight of things that must soon die; the appearance of new life on that condition only. All made invisible, or put out of mind, in our modern urban living; muted by our noise in so many forms.

Death, for us, has been tabloidized.

In the past few weeks I have lost the tenants on both sides of me. Both were well progressed through their eighties; neither could occasion much surprise. “Good people,” both; one actually aspiring to sanctity in a conscious daily way. The other an old soldier, garrulous and unreadable; always on top of his pain. (Died on the first anniversary of his wife’s death.) Both human and full of judgements and misjudgements; private sorrows that never go away. Neither could have looked to death as a “solution.”

We must look beyond, to rebehold the stars. (L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.) It is the only fortitude.

“These things happen.”

And now, for some reason, I think of the death of a boy, many years ago. A boy of eighteen who did not make it through a drug “trip”; one I hardly knew and had no reason to like. Yet somehow I came to be at his funeral.

Of the prattle at this funeral; the meaningless clichés; the hang-dog look on the faces of his school friends, who had been at the party with him, to celebrate his birthday. (To which I came as a neighbour, only to complain about the deafening music.) Who had brought the drugs.

Of the stoic bearing of his black-veiled mother (a “society lady”); the shattered face of his wealthy father (they had lost their only child).

Of a bright-eyed boy, soon “dead on arrival”; of his purple face which I glimpsed along the way. How he would be nearly as old as I am, today.

Mostly, I recall my youthful shock at his dying, and the snippet from an ancient devotion which had come unbidden to mind. (“Do not ask for whom the bell tolls.”)

The Christian thing is to live with death, always; to make constant accommodation with it. We are creatures no less than the sheep in the fields, who lay down their lives in their season. But too, we are more than sheep, and death for us is a meditation. Were we not meant to think, as men?