Magazine article The Spectator

The Quick and the Dead

Magazine article The Spectator

The Quick and the Dead

Article excerpt

His two sons, his grandsons and a family friend all gathered at the mortuary to wash him thoroughly, before his body, simply covered in a shroud, was laid in the ground. His head was turned towards Mecca and wooden boards laid over him to protect him from the clods of earth that would be sprinkled into the grave by those who mourned him. He was an 82-yearold Muslim with a long white beard who had died the previous evening. Tim Gardam, principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, took us behind the scenes to witness the rituals of a Muslim funeral. We could hear the splashes of water and squeezing of cloths in the mortuary, where one of the grandsons told us, 'To be here is a privilege . . . A moment when all fear of death is banished.'

Such an intimate moment could not have been filmed, but as radio listeners we could enter into the spirit of the moment without intruding on the private grief of those who were washing the body. It was a privilege for us too, and an intensely valuable reminder of how precious the experience of death is for the living.

In Beyond This Life (a two-part series on Radio Four, Sundays), Gardam has been thinking through this connection between the quick and the dead; a connection that has now been almost lost by the Christian community. Gardam also talked to two teenage girls whose friend Dan had been killed in a car crash. Neither of them had any faith in God, or much experience of formal religious worship. How, then, should his death be acknowledged? What kind of service could be devised to celebrate his life?

Hymns were not relevant because none of the teenage mourners would know the tunes; prayers, too, were meaningless. Yet both the girls said they wanted to believe that Dan was now 'in a better place', almost as if it was their responsibility to ensure he got there. The impulses are still the same, even if the rituals for expressing those instincts have been abandoned. …

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