The mind is its own place

Charles Cowling

The Guardian ran a short piece on Saturday about those who work in the death industry. One of the themes was humour as a coping mechanism.

One of the interviewees was Andrew Leverton of Leverton’s, by appointment undertaker to HRH the Queen. Asked if he found aspects of his work darkly funny he replied, “I don’t find it particularly humorous.” He went on to say, “I keep away from the emotional aspect of it … I try to keep things at arm’s length.” Professional detachment for him means that mishaps are things like flowers being put on the wrong coffin or corteges running late. Nothing about people.

Now, that’s quite a trick, to steer clear of emotion in the funeral business. Amidst the wailing and the trauma, Andrew’s problems are all logistical. “If you can keep you head while all about you / Are losing theirs…” You’ve cracked it, Andrew.

Part of me admires that. Grief is the responsibility of those who grieve. We hire an undertaker to take care of the practicalities, not to take away the pain. Andrew quietly sets about his business.

But most of us in Andrew’s place would find it hard not to make a human connection of some sort and, once you’ve established some sort of rapport with your clients, you’re bound to have a feeling for what’s happened to them. There’s the matter of client expectations, too. There’s got to be more to the contract than corpses and coffins and cars. Consumers expect more than courteous indifference. They need their undertaker to enter into the spirit of the arrangements to some degree.

People who get that close to death need to be able to cope. I doubt whether emotional disengagement is the way. People who reckon catastrophe to be inexplicable will never be able to process human misery and let it pass through them; they melt down. People who feed on grief (there are quite a few grief vultures out there) glut on it and go mad. Those who are more emotionally mature can take it on, then let it go. This, they would say, is the way the world is, and I accept that.

So, Andrew, I’m sure you’re doing a fine job. But, old chap, I think there’s more to it than getting to the crem on time. This is a job for emotional grown-ups. As John Milton had it:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n

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