I reckon being separated from people in life helps to prepare us for their absence in death. And when they die, their lives take on a new shape and significance. Where a life has been full and complete, we can only celebrate it. We express its value in the currency of contribution, influence, relationship. Where there has been pain and suffering, we view death as a release. Quality of life is valued over mere existence.
And wherever death is unexpected or premature, we value the human potential that has been lost. So often the prematurely bereaved become campaigners and even reformers, honouring the memory of their loved ones by seeking to save others from the same misfortune. Their lives … and deaths, we hear time and again, will not have been in vain.
Avoidable death is a constant spur to human progress. It challenges politics, economics, ethics – to my sceptical ear, diminutives with a sonic similarity to ‘antics’ and ‘frolics’ – by reminding us that within each word there beats a moral heart … respectively liberty, equality, fraternity. And no other human right outguns the right to life.
But whatever the circumstances, death can be the moment that life burns brightest. With our last breath we pass into the collective consciousness, an apotheosis far superior to any egoistic notion of individual transcendence. This is poignantly described in the second verse of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem For Doomed Youth (quoted below) where the dead can be said to pass into folk memory. Funeral elegies and fond memories held in common can bring us back to life where we really belong, in the hearts and minds of others.
What greater incentive could we have to slip the reins of ego and gallop free of death’s burdensome saddle? What greater reward for a good life could we hope for than to be recalled with a grateful smile? What else could have driven great artists through the present pain of creation but the knowledge that they might live on in their masterpieces?
And my prayer?
Let not humankind curse me for a destroyer but praise me for a creator.
“I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” – Terence
What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us time and time over. They are to be happy in: where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question brings the priest and the doctor in their long coats running over the fields.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.