Learning to dance with death

Charles Cowling


Posted by Vale


I was reading the vision statement for the Dying Matters Coalition recently (as you do) and stubbed my toe on their ambition to address death, dying and bereavement in a way that:

’will involve a fundamental change in society in which dying, death and bereavement will be seen and accepted as the natural part of everybody’s life cycle’

It made me wonder if there are any model societies where – in the terms of the Dying Matters Coalition – they have got it right.

I had the same reaction to those Tory statements about ‘Broken Britain’. I always wanted to ask when they thought it broke and when it was last ‘whole’. (My sneaking suspicion is that it was at about the time that this verse – never sung now – of All Things bright and Beautiful was written: ‘The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them, high or lowly/And ordered their estate’. But that’s a whole other argument).

Has there ever been a society with a truly healthy attitude to death, dying and bereavement? It would be interesting to hear some suggestions: is it Mexico with its Day of the Dead? Or Ghana with its glorious coffins?

My own mind flew back to the middle ages in Europe. It was a culture steeped in death and dying and supported by the consolations of a universal and unchallenged faith, but I am not sure they managed to naturalise death even then. The Danse Macabre – so often a representation of death-in- life – is no celebration of bereavement and dying, it is much more a metaphor for death’s disruptive power and the universality of its challenge.

Nothing, it seems to me, has changed.

3 thoughts on “Learning to dance with death

  1. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Yup, Vale, I’ve chucked the little science I know at it, along with various spiritual insights and comparative observations and I’m left with…a profound mystery, an insoluble puzzle. Maybe that’s just as well.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Thanks GM for such a thoughtful response to my post. I recognise all you say and your tale of the daughter still so unprepared for the death of her mother is exactly the point I was driving at.

    However inevitable death is, I don’t see how it can be other than an affront to life. Planned, long known or unlooked for the living will always, I suspect, find it hard to comprehend. Thank you.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Powerful and interesting thoughts, Vale. I think the question is, ultimately, impossible to answer, though it might well be interesting to try. And that’s because it would call for an impossible-to-achieve objectivity and comparative knowledge amounting to “being” a member of each culture you were considering.

    Cultures generate their own ways of dealing with death and bereavement, and your final sentence about the Danse Macabre makes that point beautifully. We read back into it (the DM) things that we hope will help us “deal with” death in 2012. It will have felt very different in the 14th century, that time of appalling catastrophes and mass death.

    That’s why I’m sometimes a little mistrustful of the way we celebrants bang on about doing death better, “why don’t we do more X?” I worry that it’s often an aesthetic, personal view of how we wish mortality was dealt with.

    Case in point: “we” often tend to feel dissatisfied with restraint, the inhibition of grief, Victorianesque formality. It may well be that many people haven’t thought through what they want, they may choose a funeral mode by default, they may do better for themselves if they show a bit less stiff upper lip and allow themselves a sob or two..

    But a formal and restrained funeral is, obviously enough, not “better” than a more expressive and informal funeral. Similarly with our attitudes towards dying and grieving (and funeral preferences tell us a lot about cultural attitudes towards mortality.) The Mexican attitude towards mortality is fascinating, rewarding to consider, even to study, but have they got it right? Well, they’ve got it Mexican, that’s for sure!

    None of this is to gainsay the value of the voices crying down our conventional approaches to dying and funerals and wanting to supplant them with something they think would be more meaningful. I’m one of those myself, because I think that more mindfulness, more living part of the time entirely in now, would give us a calmer, more easily-healed way of dealing with dying
    and bereavement, especially in an age of religious doubt and metaphysical confusion! I read tribute from a daughter to her mother that said “I don’t know what to say. I thought you’d live for ever.” Even though the mother had a terminal illness for many months. I felt quite desolate when I read this. Poor daughter.

    Our beliefs and sort-of-a-bit-of beliefs have fragmented, shattered. Shards of brightly-coloured glass. We can’t find one cultural approach to dying that is right, we have to find our own. That’s why this work is so bloody difficult – and worthwhile.

    Charles Cowling

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