FOCUS: Death - Dying ; We Used to Be So Much Better at It. but despite the Advance of Medical Science and the Decline of Religious Belief We Are More Squeamish and Vulnerable Than Ever about Dying. Today Is National Death Day (No, Really). an Appropriate Time, Argues DJ Taylor, to Face Up to the Grim Reaper
Taylor, Dj, The Independent (London, England)
Agood way of demonstrating the existence of the generation gap is to ask anyone below the age of 50 how many dead bodies they have seen. Trying this out on myself, I discovered that I had watched more people come into the world (three) than leave it (two). Even the deaths I thought I had witnessed - both unknowns who had collapsed in public places - were ultimately unproven, in that it was perfectly possible that some kind of last-ditch revival had been effected later on. For people who pride themselves on their worldliness, the acuteness of their vantage point on massed humanity, this realisation can come as a disagreeable shock. There you are, 40 years on the planet, and still the second of its twin elementals lurks invisibly beyond the horizon.
My father (born 1921), on the other hand, turns out to have seen around a dozen: both his parents, both his in-laws, and casualties from his five-year stint as an RAF wireless operator in the Second World War. He had a particularly grisly tale of a corpse found on the outskirts of a village in occupied France which, when picked up, promptly came apart in the middle.
Ask yourself when the modern attitude to death - which essentially consists of pretending that it doesn't exist - came into being, and the answer will probably lie somewhere in the years between the end of the Second World War and the widespread use of penicillin and its derivatives. Not overnight, but gradually and indissolubly, much of the stuff that in the past had rampaged through the human frame unchecked could now be tamed. To go back to the paternal exemplar, my father was not merely part of the generation that fought in the war, he was part of the generation before modern drugs. One of his chief memories of childhood, for instance, is of sitting in the front room nursing a slight cold with a parent on either side of the fender vigilantly monitoring his cough: a cough in those pre- streptomycin days could mean bloodstained handkerchiefs and sanitariums, and above all that increasingly rare phenomenon, the dead child.
Together with wills, heiresses and legal spats, the dead child was a staple of the English novel of the 19th century. In the same way, the English popular song until almost the end of the pre- rock'n'roll era was awash in pale white hands and funeral processions. Half a century later, this kind of subject matter has practically vanished. Naturally enough, people die in the television soaps and police and casualty dramas, but they never actually die, over time more often than not alone, accompanied by God knows what mental anguish; everything comes doused in spiritual limelight.
Move a little further down the ladder towards the mass culture bedrock and death's absence from the proceedings becomes faintly conspicuous. The message in magazines and popular papers is the same: we are all of us in grade-A shape, more or less, permanently ready for every sensual gratification the world can offer, and, whether we happen to be lickerish teenagers or funky pensioners, quite prepared to live for ever. To a very large extent, death - not the fact that people die, but the way in which it happens - is simply kept off the page. How often, for example, do you read an article about funeral etiquette or the best way of determining whether a person has actually expired (pocket mirror held to the lips, apparently)?
Squeamishness about death, and about the processes of dying, is a comparatively recent development. The Victorians, for example, certainly feared death but their absorption in its paraphernalia and its rituals suggests an ease in its presence that the modern age altogether lacks. Death sat permanently at the family hearth; Victorian families often gave the same name to two or three sons, their parents assuming that only one would survive) but it was also a part of the entertainment industry - the last public …
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Publication information: Article title: FOCUS: Death - Dying ; We Used to Be So Much Better at It. but despite the Advance of Medical Science and the Decline of Religious Belief We Are More Squeamish and Vulnerable Than Ever about Dying. Today Is National Death Day (No, Really). an Appropriate Time, Argues DJ Taylor, to Face Up to the Grim Reaper. Contributors: Taylor, Dj - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: April 14, 2002. Page number: 22. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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