For the Victorians, sex was the great taboo. Nowadays, it’s death.
Every time I hear someone begin to say that I jam my fingers in my ears. I may even moan softly. Gibber a bit, even. I’m, I can’t tell you, I’m just so sick of it. Talk about cliché, god, it makes even the most clichéd cliché look fresh.
For the truth is that we love talking about dying and death. We’re spellbound by it. The media are always talking death, doing death. We love a good funeral. Does Wootton Bassett look taboo-struck?
And every time someone writes about it they say, “For Victorians…” Aaaaargh!!
Matthew Parris doesn’t say it because he’s fastidious and he picks his idioms judiciously. Perhaps it’s his age, but he’s writing about death more than he used—and very well, too. He’s getting older, of course. He’s reached that age when we realise that we are not going to be the first one ever to slip beneath Reaper G’s radar (the bastard).
Here’s how he begins a recent piece in the Spectator:
It is five years since my father died. I thought I would get over it, but I haven’t. This is not a plea for sympathy — I’m fine, all’s well — but simply an observation, a report. Unusually for a man of 54 I had never, before Dad’s death, lost anyone close; and I had no idea what to expect.
I guessed, though, that the experience would not differ from other violent emotional traumas: first the shock, then a blank aftershock; then busy-ness — displacement activity; then perhaps a relapsing into grief. And after that and over many years a slow but steady process of what sensitive people might call ‘healing’ and the rest of us would call getting over it.
The shock, it turned out, though expected, was the phone-call. At the bedside of a dying man I expected no theatre, and found none. Just as I’d supposed the immediate feeling was only bleak, banal — no trumpets or violins, no wailing or floods of tears, but a kind of bleakness, a grey hour in a grey dawn. And so it proved: the rain coming down softly (I remember) outside in Catalonia. Blank.
Then (I thought) might follow a few weeks’ false-normality: still numb, but with arrangements of a practical nature to busy myself with. One would have too much to do to mope.
And so this proved, too: there’s plenty to fill close relatives’ days when somebody dies, and hardly time to miss the deceased. And it rained at the funeral too, and there were hundreds of Catalan and Spanish mourners to air-kiss at the door of the little church before Dad’s coffin was borne away in the hearse: red tail-lights in the rain. And I still wasn’t feeling much.
But waiting, I suppose, for the lapse into grief: a month or two of wallowing.
This never came. I went back to England and back to work. Ordinary service was resumed. There was no time of quiet, after-the-event confrontation with what I had lost, no delayed grief once I had, as they say, ‘time to grieve’. There we are, then, I thought. One down — and how many more to go? The waters had closed over my father’s head and the ripples subsided. I missed him, of course, but from now on, with each month that passed, I would surely miss him a little less. Time heals all wounds, etc. So now, I thought, begins that famous healing process.
If that whets your appetite for the rest of this splendid piece, find it here.