Sunday, 6 April 2014

Fragile Life

Today at St Brelade's Church, there was a new Christening bowl dedicated at the family service; it is a gift from a family who lost their young child, age 3. There can be few things as sad as the death of a small child.

I have been to one funeral which was a cot death, of a boy a few months old. Another of a child who died of a heart condition, again only a few months old. My abiding memory is of the latter, of the father, quite a large man, cradling this tiny coffin in his arms as he processed slowly down the aisle at St Peter's Church. I can picture that still; etched on my brain.

The fragility of life came up briefly as a topic of conversation at a breakfast at St Peter's Garden Centre which I attended on Saturday. We tend to put death to the back of our minds; we probably could not function if it was there all the time.

But sometimes, we do need to be reminded. The fragility of life reminds us of how precious it is, of how each moment might be our last. Just as we cannot live in a state of euphoria or a state of despair all the time, we can't live with that knowledge either. But the danger is that we don't live with it at all; we live our lives as if we never have to come to terms with death. When Annie, my partner, died, it was the first time I had seen anyone dead. And I suspect my experience, in that regard, is not that uncommon.

Death is sanitised nowadays, and unless you want to, you don't have to see dead people. The funeral directors take care of all that for you. It is something which didn't happen in the past, where death was much more of a part of life. There's a grave with a small statue of a young boy in St Brelade's cemetery. He died around Christmas in the early 20th century, aged 10. Infant mortalitywas high, as family trees show, and death was not as taboo as it has become.

The poet Langston Hughes captures the modern attitude of shutting out death very well:

"Life is for the living.
Death is for the dead.
Let life be like music.
And death a note unsaid."

Intimations of mortality begin when your peers begin to die. My oldest school friend, from the 1960s and early 1970s, was Nigel Miles, and he must have died in the 1980s; I can't remember precisely when. I remember the funeral; it was at St Brelade's Church, and quite packed, and pouring with rain outside. Of course, not only were friends and family there, there were friends of his parents there in support as well. He must have been in his 20s when he died. He died of Aids, and of course, back in the 1980s there was a degree of stigma attached to that. Even some clergy, who should have known better, made misguided remarks about divine retribution; thankfully, none of that was present at his funeral.

There's a James Bond film on today, one of the lesser Roger Moore ones, when he was rather too old for the part of a dashing young spy. The title is "You only live twice", and in the original book by Ian Fleming, it actually has something to say about the human condition:

"You only live twice:
Once when you're born
And once when you look death in the face."

That captures something of the way in which the fragility of life can be enhanced by experiences of death, either our own, or someone close to us. As so many people have said, going to the brink of a life threatening illness, or a near fatal injury, can cause us to reassess our lives, and realise just how rich and precious life is.  As Victor Hugo says, in Les Miserables:

"It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live."

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