They say that in Victorian times people talked obsessively about death, but that the topic of sex was taboo. I reckon the opposite is true for us. With life-expectancy increasing, infant mortality falling, medicine advancing and the outsourcing of care for the sick, the old and the dying, most of us manage to push death out of the realm of our immediate experience, and out of our conversation. It is a strange kind of taboo though, because, like Osama bin Laden, it is hidden in plain sight. The television, film and the news are full of stories of violent and tragic death. We are surrounded by images of death and yet, not only does this not prompt us to reflect on or talk about our own mortality, but it somehow seems to have the opposite effect. Perhaps this is because it is only the prospect of our own death or the death of someone that we love which can truly confront us with our mortality, and even then we often lack the resources to find a meaningful place for it.
I remember a fascinating episode of a documentary series I once saw. The series featured this lovely, slightly awkward English bloke (don’t they all) who was travelling the world to participate in traditional festivals. In this particular episode he was staying with a Mexican family, who were celebrating ‘The Day of the Dead’. The family encouraged him to place photos of his own dead alongside their own, and so with some hesitation he pulled out a photo that he had of his mother who had died when he was much younger. At a particular point in the festival, the household performed a ritual to invite their dead relatives in to visit, and it was fascinating and moving to see the presenter’s sudden shift from detached observer to deeply engaged participant as he was put back in touch with grief that he clearly felt he no longer had.
It made me wonder where our rituals of death are. What do we have in our culture to help us not only to face, but to find a place for death? Funerals are not enough. In a culture where death is taboo, funerals end up being like sex was for the heroines of Victorian novels, a terrifying unknown before it happens, and something that must be processed alone (or not at all) afterwards. We have to do better than this.
It is difficult to know how I might start to prepare my 17-month-old daughter for her own death and for the deaths of those she loves. Obviously with death education, like sex education, you’re going to want to let your child set the agenda, but I do wonder if there is a place in this for rituals like those in the Day of the Dead, that can serve to introduce the reality of death into the rhythm of life.
I grew up going to church every week and experiencing a ritualised acknowledgment of death every week in the form of Communion (aka the Eucharist, aka the Lord’s Supper aka the bread and wine thing), but I’m thinking more of something where dead friends, family (and pets?) are remembered. Any ideas?