Friday, 24 February 2012

Pants on Fire, Howling at the Moon?

I'll get back to my lupine pal above in a moment, but my point is that a very popular choice of reading (not a poem) is from Canon Scott-Holland, and it seems to me that, no doubt from good intentions, his pants are well and truly on fire fire liar liar.

OK, so I do (not often enough) the mindfulness meditation. I read the good grown-up books about mortality. I reflect long and deeply on those deaths that I learn about. I read the poems, take the long view, feel the symbols.

And sometimes I could just howl at the moon about death. I mean, how can it be? The world is all around us, we move through it and it moves through us, in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Life is an energy, our memories build and build and then. Nothing. Gone. Despite all our understanding, a huge mystery. The life closes down, a body is cared for (or not) and dealt with in a way that creates (or not) some meaning for those still alive. A bereaved person back a year or two phoned me weeks after the funeral and said "Where is he? I don't understand."

I understand, I understand. But I am not reconciled, as the poet said.

And that's why I turn now on this miserable drivel:

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still.

Death is very far from nothing at all, you old liar, with your narcotic platitudes. The most devout believer in an afterlife ("the next room...") will tell you that being separated from someone by death hurts, and that hurt has to be accommodated and lived through, and then lived with. We may still love those who have died, but that hardly means that whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

And you are not in the next room, dead dear one. You may be in heaven, you may be about to be re-incarnated, you may simply not be in existence, but you are bloody well not in the next room. If you were, I'd put the kettle on and we've have a nice chat.

I thought briefly and with contempt of the Canon's words as I helped with the funeral of a young woman recently. I was on the edge of tears myself some of the time, and I didn't even know her. And the reason I was upset - well, two reasons. One, to be honest, is a little over-tiredness, it being the season it is. But the other was because the people who'd lost the woman had the honesty, emotional truth and courage - and love for her - not to pretend. That was very moving.

It's not that particular pain that leaves me howling at the moon. It's the canonical nonsense above that does it. How can we deal with the power and mystery of death, how can we enrich our lives by understanding our mortality, if we put ourselves to sleep with this stuff?

I'm really sorry if the Canon's words have helped you recently, in a bereavement or a funeral. It's your choice, and if it works for you, I'm pleased, really I am. I also appreciate that he goes on to say more useful and true things later, about speaking of me as you always did, not being mock-solemn - but then he blows it.

"What is death but a negligible accident?"

It's not an accident, Mutton-Chops. It happens to all of us. Stop selling us a dummy, stop swerving about and dishonouring your noble profession. Listen to this mad/sane old man, holding his daughter in his arms:

"Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!"


  1. Yes, death is catastrophe. That's the bottom line, that's where we should start from. Powerful writing, GM. trivialising death does not diminish it.

  2. Thanks Charles. One needs a little safety valve at this time of year.

  3. Not to diminish your grief and pain at this excessively deathy time of year, dear GM, but wanting to add two things:
    1. Lear was culpable in Cordelia's death, which will have complicated his grief.
    2. Canon Scott Holland is woefully misrepresented by that snippet's being taken out of its proper context. The sermon as a whole provides a quite different view. See Ian Black in the Church Times, 7th November 2003.

  4. Interesting comments, thanks Kathryn. Yes, certainly Lear was culpable, I was interested more in his words as they stand, rather than the moral structures of the play. As for the Canon - I'm not seeking to represent him, merely his words - which of course are not a misrepresentation, as far as I'm aware, they are as written, and they are narcotising nonsense.

    OK, I was also a bit rude about the man....he didn't even have mutton chop whiskers - but he was Regius Professor of Divinity, and Canon of a church in Oxford, i.e. a leading priest of his day. He didn't oughter'ave talked such stuff, then! I don't see how a passage of that length can be seen off by calling it a snippet out of context - it has been defended thus before, of course - but I guess the real point is - it gets used all the bloody time! And oh dear, I really wish it wasn't. However, if people want it, then of course I'll wheel it out. I still think its drivel...

    Anyway - thanks for dropping by.

  5. And there was me thinking that the good Canon's words were actually taken from a letter from him, to his wife, to be opened following his death.....

    In that context, it is one of the most touching and comforting offerings I have ever come across.

  6. It is taken from a sermon Scott Holland gave in St Paul's, on Sunday 15th May 1910, not a letter to his wife. (According to the Church Times article referred to by Kathryn above.) His defenders tend to state that to quote this passage is to misquote his sermon. Well, that could be argued over, I guess. To me, the point is that I am troubled by the idea that it advances a misrepresentation and a distortion of the truth about mortality and bereavement. Maybe you feel comfort at any price is valuable? Maybe I don't. Maybe the Canon was making a rhetorical contrast with this, elsewhere in his sermon. Maybe so - but we're still stuck with it.

  7. Ah, GM

    How welcome I found your words. This is one of my least faves, too, not least because it's so overused (part of it is even carved in stone at one of the local crems). But, I'm with you, if it brings comfort, then we must deliver as though it were the most profound passage ever written.

    Your example of the recent ceremony was powerful stuff. Dealing with absolute finality takes courage, and for that family to have that bravery so early in the "process" is humbling. Well done you for getting through it.

  8. Thanks for your encouraging words XP, always valued because I know you are also at the "sharp end." And yes, we perform. However sincere we may feel, however authentic we seek to make our words - if we don't perform well, even with the Canon's tosh, then what use are we to bereaved people?