The Brits have never been really good at talking about death – most find the subject far too distressing even though it is something we will all experience at some point.
However, at the moment, in the middle of a pandemic there is no escape from it. We are surrounded by talk of death, by the means and the numbers of the dying and by visuals of grieving families, sobbing spouses and weeping children. And yet, many still find acknowledging it and dealing with its place in our lives, a near impossible task.
For instance, a sad post on my local neighbourhood app, was recently posted by a daughter whose 80 year old father, who is in reasonable health but is terrified of dying and she doesn’t know what to do or how to address it, so was looking for ideas – any ideas that would help her allay his fears and her inadequacies on coping with the problem.
And that’s the nub of it – most people are scared of dying, don’t know how to deal with it and how to cope with its inevitability. So if there is any upside in these troubled times it is that talking of death is an hourly occurrence during any news programme or round-up we happen on and not just from reporters, politicians and scientists but also from medical and care workers so that we have witnessed the compassionate way death can be dealt with. For after all it is the one experience we will all share.
I was quite moved during one news bulletin reporting a terrible mining disaster in northern India when one of the rescued miners talked about the colleagues he tried to save, he said “Death touched me and went ahead”. It was an example of how different cultures view and cope with death and to him it was as much part of life as anything else.
Most cultures and religions have their own way of coping with the dead with different rituals, ceremonies or even celebrations and set periods of mourning – there is Judaism’s 7-day mourning ritual of shiva sitting, while in Islam it can be from thirteen days to three years, in certain Christian countries black is worn from six months to seven days and widows in India traditionally dressed in white. And even though the Brits have for a long time been very reticent and stiff upper lippish about such losses, the pandemic has also unleashed another aspect when the number of mourners has been restricted at funerals. A small public outcry ensured when it was first suggested that a mere fifteen people were allowed to attend, while heartbroken families and friends vowed a full celebration of the life lost when the rest of life returns to a new normal.
Although forced upon the country by Covid, a healthier and more open attitude to death in all its grimness and glory has been imposed on the nation which can, in the long run, be a case for the common good.
How apt then, that in the midst of this a surprise bestseller has arrived – Mrs. Death Misses Death. Written in a mixture of poetry and prose by poet Salena Godden, it is a treatise on death in all its guises from wars to famine, car crashes, murders, massacres and towering infernos and told from the viewpoint of Mrs Death, a poor exhausted black woman who has had enough of dealing with the bodies and the rage and the devastation. She’s been at it for eternity. Fortunately she finds her biographer…and off we go on what has been described as a modern Pilgrim’s Progress. Alongside the doom and destruction there is, always resolution, resilience and hope.
(Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden: canongate.co.uk)