Monday, 15 September 2014

Denial vs consolation, depression vs mourning, funeral poems

Edward Hirsch lost his son Gabriel in 2011, and recently published a long eponymous poem about Gabriel's life and his death. 

In the interview I mentioned in my previous post, he says:

“I think ancient cultures incorporated death into the experience of life in a more natural way than we have done. In our obsessive focus on youth, on celebrity, our denial of death makes it harder for people who are grieving to find a place for that grief. There is a big difference between depression and mourning. Depression is a feeling without a cause. Mourning has a cause. Many of us are carrying the dead around with us. We should not feel ashamed of that.”

I'm sure the second sentence carries a sombre truth for our culture and our times.

He also says that what he wrote about elegy in "A Poet's Glossary" would be less about consolation, had he written it after his son's death.

I sometimes wonder if I try too hard to find consoling words for funeral ceremonies; it seems to be what people want, they seem to find it helpful. Is it a fine line we walk between denying death and offering a consoling thought?

The last line of the much-used poem "Do Not Stand By My Grave And Weep" is:  "I did not die." 

To which Spike Milligan might have said "then what the hell are we all doing here dressed in suits?"

Brian Patten's "How Long Does A Man Live?" (out of Pablo Neruda, btw) I find a lot more substantial, with a much better balance.

 It doesn't seek to deny the reality of a death, and the consolation it offers seems to me much more substantial.


  1. A counter-thought here, GM, for the sake of debate and also because I think it's something that ought to be taken into account. How many people know anything at all about their great-grandparents? Fact is, in the end, we are all forgotten. Is there consolation to be found in that?

  2. Well, might that depend on temperament? I know someone who finds consolation in feeling part of a long unfolding pattern of life and death - her family, and the natural world in its seasons. It helps her feel that the ending of her own consciousness is part of something much bigger and longer-lasting.

    Maybe there is consolation for some people in knowing that eventually, we are all forgotten, but many people might think that they don't want that to be too soon. The paradox is that if it is "too soon," they won't be there to regret it.