2016: reflections on mortality and history

The internet is a grim place at the moment, even more than usual. It seems whenever I look at Twitter I have to choose between people bellyaching about Brexit, bellyaching about Trump, or ever more doom-laden predictions of the apocalypse. Yesterday I heard that Homo sapiens sapiens has a one in 500 chance of being extinct by the end of next year. And apparently Stephen Hawking has suggested that we probably only have 1000 years left on the planet.

The atmosphere of terror that accompanies these predictions is because they break one of the last and greatest taboos of our time. No, not the menopause. I’m talking about death.

Death is something that happens to other people. We know it’s coming but thanks to modern science and medicine we put it aside as something to deal with later on. As a result we’re not very good at talking about it and we tend to panic when someone suggests that it might be a possibility, even a distant possibility. One of the most striking differences between the present and almost every era of European history from the Middle Ages onwards is the apparent preoccupation of past cultures with the imminence of death, in particular the death of the young. It’s not them that’s different, though; it’s us. Memento mori images in paintings, monuments in churches that graphically depict the corpses of the dead, carpe diem literature; these are alien to us now. But before the last century they were everywhere.

Think of Hans Holbein, whose handsome twenty-something Ambassadors are overshadowed by the enigmatic skull that predicts their demise.

Medieval worshippers in church were often confronted by paintings of ‘The Three Living and the Three Dead’, juxtaposing three youths – or sometimes three kings – with three dancing, grinning skeletons, the image of what they will become. Many of the prayers they found in their Books of Hours were thought to act as talismans against a sudden death, and they petitioned saints whose exalted status usually derived, ultimately, from the manner of their deaths.

Then there’s Andrew Marvell, making death sexy since 1650:

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, Lady, were no crime.

And his contemporary Robert Herrick:

Gather ye roses while you may

Old Time is still a-flying:

And that sweet flower that blooms today

Tomorrow will be dying.

The nineteenth century was perhaps the worst, fetishizing the young, virtuous and dying in literature and on the operatic stage. Think of Little Nell, Beth March, Mimi and Violetta. Mr Brocklehurst tells a ten-year-old Jane Eyre ‘Children younger than you die daily’ – and presents a dead child to her as an example of model behaviour. True, Brocklehurst is presented as a religious fanatic, but when Jane’s friend Helen dies at thirteen it becomes clear that Charlotte Bronte endorses his idealisation of death. Mourning clothes created an institution out of the shadow that death cast over a family; black-rimmed notepaper announced it to the wider world.

Housman’s words, written in 1896, express a sentiment which would be unthinkable now.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

The catastrophizing talk of the past few weeks isn’t the anomaly. The anomaly is the illusion of immortality that the last fifty years has created.

All that’s different now is that unlike in the past most people don’t have any hope of better things to come after death. Or do they? In a sense, what we believe about heaven and hell, paradise, the resurrection, doesn’t matter, because even our predecessors, saturated with religion, recognised that there are different paths to life after death than just the church way. In the 1470s Johannes Tinctoris, a music theorist, suggested that through their music, composers might secure ‘immortal fame’, because – as the poet Virgil had written – ‘short and irretrievable is the span of life for all; but to prolong fame by deeds – that is the task of virtue.’ Advice, perhaps, to be taken with that of Robert Merrick – life is short; enjoy it, but make sure you use it for good.

Nothing I can think of says this better than my favourite Christian song: ‘We Are’ by the great Kari Jobe. There’s no need to be a Christian to appreciate this. It’s relevant to us all, now more than ever.

Wake up sleeper, lift your head

We were made for more than this

Fight the shadows, conquer death

Make the most of the time we have left.

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