That death has long been a subject of importance but difficulty for human beings is suggested by the number of expressions for it inscribed on tombstones in this cemetery between 1880 and 1930. Here is a non-comprehensive list (the cemetery was very large and I did not examine every tombstone):Died, Passed away, Fell Asleep, Departed this Life, Was Called to Higher Service, At Rest, Entered into Eternal Life, Was Gently Translated, Called Home, Passed into Higher Service, Entered into the Homeland, Suddenly Fell Asleep, At Peace, Was Changed…There is surely an embarrassment in this profusion of expressions, as if the nature of something so deeply undesirable and undesired as death could be altered into something nicer by a change in terminology. One hears in it Matthew Arnold’s long, melancholy withdrawing roar of religious belief; we struggle over words when we are uncertain what we want to say or what we mean.
In simplicity is feeling. I was much moved, for example, by a small tomb which gave the name and dates of a child who died aged three months in 1964, by the side of which had recently been placed some fresh flowers. By 1964, of course, the death of a child was already unexpected and anomalous, a tragedy rather than a natural event that, however regrettable, was normal: and this is proved by the fact that 46 years later the parents, now probably in their seventies, remember the child with grief still in their hearts. It takes very little effort of the imagination, surely, to visualise the couple at the cemetery, dignified and undemonstrative, with their small bunch of flowers. But if we move on to more recent infant deaths, we find a significant change.
I remember learning in school about ancient burials which contained all the tools and utensils of everyday life. In our hearts we mocked those primitive people, who thought that a comb or a spear might be useful to a decomposing corpse.
And yet now we put teddy bears on the tombstones of deceased infants.
Perhaps our ancestors were not, after all, deluded fools thinking you could ‘take it with you’. Perhaps now I understand them better.
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