Poetry and Contemporary Attitudes towards Death

Poetry and Contemporary Attitudes towards Death

Note: On the brink of undergoing my first major surgical intervention, I came across the following piece amongst my papers. It was apparently written two years after the death of my father, which event took place at least twelve to fifteen years ago. There are plenty of things I could add but I thought it best to leave the piece unchanged. SH

Increasingly people today are arranging their own funeral services or those of their family and partners whether the service is a standard cremation or a woodland burial. Instead of, or in association with, passages from the Bible or other sacred books there is an increasing demand for readings from contemporary or at least relatively modern authors. Unfortunately, loafing through late twentieth century literature one finds very little indeed on the subject of death and that little is generally of extremely poor quality. Why is this? The present society, whatever its other merits, seems incapable of facing up to death and by and large we sweep it under the carpet and pretend it isn’t really there. For most of my life death was something that happened in the past or to other people  and I saw my first actual dead body (my father’s) only a couple of years ago when I was in my late fifties. Confronted with death, one tends to be flummoxed, embarrassed, at a loss. Although I suppose one could write a good poem saying exactly this ─ that one doesn’t really know what to feel ─ I don’t think a funeral service would be the place to read it out loud.

What exactly do most people require from readings at a funeral service? I think most people require something solemn. Since the language of the King James Bible and the Prayer Book is solemn in an absolutely magnificent way, a lot of people who don’t believe a word of it, are quite happy for extracts to be read at funerals ─ they ‘sound right’ and up to a point that is all that really matters. Death can be treated as a joke but a funeral service is not, one feels, the place for fooling around. I have been to a funeral where supposedly funny pieces were read : practically everyone present including myself found this tasteless and objectionable. (Irish Catholics have their wakes, of course, but they have a full-blown funeral service first.) And as it happens, modern poetry ─ I mean poetry from the nineteen-twenties onwards ─ has very largely been against solemnity, against anything high-sounding, has become deliberately prosaic and matter of fact. That is all very well but goes some way to explaining why few people today can write well about death, for the theme of death somehow does require one to pull the stops out.

Also, people generally desire to have something consoling if possible read out at a funeral service. Once again, the traditional religions score heavily here since they do offer serious consolations, in particular the consolation that, contrary to appearances, death is not the end. Humanism finds it hard to compete here.

`What is indubitable when confronted with a corpse is that something has gone, has ended. How can one attempt to console oneself for this? One solution is to argue that the ‘true self’ does not reside in the body and so does not die with the body. It may surprize some people to learn that this was not originally a Christian doctrine ─ Christianity still officially affirms the ‘resurrection of the body’ ─ but a Greek idea which some historians trace even further back to the ‘out-of-the-body’ experiences of Siberian shamans (see Note). Today, however, science has considerably weakened belief in the reality of this incorporeal entity, the soul; also, we are not too keen today on a system of belief which implicitly or explicitly downgrades the body. The ‘soul’ option is losing ground fast.

This more or less only leaves two broad options: belief in reincarnation and pantheism. Most people today who consider themselves pagans seem to believe in reincarnation or pantheism or both combined: certainly I myself am attracted to both. The difficulty with reincarnation as a ‘solution’ to the problem of death is that, either you believe in an immaterial ‘something’ which keeps on persisting, in which case you are driven back to the ‘soul option’, or, as in traditional Buddhism, you deny that there is anything that persists, in which case the whole system ceases to be so consoling. Hinduism, or certain forms of it, affirms that the ‘individual soul’ (atman) eventually gets merged completely in the Absolute (Brahman) from which it came.

Although Plato and some Greeks and Romans believed in reincarnation, the idea is basically Indian and, if one is looking for passages in the English language affirming reincarnation there is not a lot available.

Pantheism has the great advantage that it is actually in some sense true ! We do end up merged into ‘Nature’ and modern science in affirming that “energy cannot be destroyed but only changed in form” (1st Law of Thermo-dynamics) has actually reinforced pantheistic belief. The difficulties are of a different order. The Romantics identified ‘Nature’ with everything admirable and good, but since Darwin, and even worse since Dawkins, it seems we have to believe that Nature demonstrates the fascist principle of ‘survival of the fittest’. Also, since Nature obviously cares nothing for the individual, it is debatable to what extent pantheism can provide consolation when confronted with the death of an individual.

Finally, one should perhaps mention a sort of paradoxically ‘consoling’ solution to the problem of death, namely the belief that there is, and can be, no consolation. This option can at least claim to look things squarely in the face ─ or does it?

Sebastian Hayes

Notes : E.R. Dodds takes this view in chapter V of his remarkable book “The Greeks and the Irrational” .

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