Death and mortality have been much on my mind lately. You may have noticed this in the last two postings on this blog. Recent events have reinforced this theme; for example, I’ve just been to the Isle of Wight with cousins to scatter the ashes of my late aunt Gwen, while on the same day my wife went to a memorial gathering for Nick Thomas, a scientist, researcher and a former general secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, who died in April.
On the Isle of Wight, my cousins and I had a simple and dignified final leave-taking of Gwen; a poem was read, and the ashes were consigned to the sea, their traces marked by flowers which floated on the water, moving onwards and outwards with the patterns of the tide. Afterwards, we went for lunch in the pub where Gwen had once worked behind the bar, in the village where both Gwen and my parents had lived.
My relatives, two of whom had flown from the USA to say their farewells, wanted to take a last look at the house where Gwen had lived and also to look at my late parents’ home, where they had often been welcomed. So after lunch, we strolled the few yards to my parents’ house. We could scarcely recognise it, such was the extent of the changes made to the house by the new owners. Where was the tall hedge? Where was the climbing rose? Most of the front lawn had been covered over by a concrete driveway. The front door had now retreated behind a glass-filled porch. There was no longer any connection between this house and my parents.
We then walked slowly up the village street to see the house where Gwen had lived. This house, too, had been transformed by its new owner – instead of the white-painted brickwork we remembered, the entire surface of the house, even up to the top of the chimney-stack, had been pebble-dashed. This was a clear visual indication that this house, too, had changed and Gwen was not to be found there.
What can be said in the face of such finality? My parents, my aunt, Nick Thomas – all are gone. They, who seemed so alive, so present, are no longer in physical existence. And yet one still feels so connected, can hear their voices, can bring their faces and characters to mind. Surely they are still real, even though not physically with us. An atheist would say that I am being absurd, that consciousness dies with the physical body; we have just one life, that it comes out of nothingness and randomness, and at death there is complete extinction.
When I got home from the island, my wife told me about the memorial gathering at Rudolf Steiner House in London for Nick Thomas, at which many people had spoken about him. One of the most moving contributions came from 17-year old Flora Kaye, a student from the Kings Langley Steiner school, who got up to deliver a tribute she had written. A few days before Nick died, he had gone to the school, where he taught philosophy to the older classes, to say goodbye to the students. He had told them he would soon be leaving his body and was looking forward to the next stage. Flora felt that, perhaps unlike in lessons, she was now hearing Nick properly and this is what she had to say about it:
“To a man of great wisdom and inspiration.
I hear you ended this form of living. I hear you no longer see with your eyes, hear with your ears and think with your brain. I hear you now. I hear you loudest now your silence becomes eternal, and I feel a pang of grief for not listening sooner. But this path leads me closest to learning more about you and more about myself and for that I am gratefully standing here.
I was told of your journey, your great mind and your warm heart. I then heard your voice and I still wasn’t ready to listen. My ears still developing, I only heard an echo of what you said, still searching within myself for the words you spoke to the world. The words you had been searching for long before my noise, my breath began.
And then I heard you loud. I watched your strength take you by your hand and lift you up. I saw you speaking out with all your heart, where others were too afraid to wonder.
I heard something extraordinary. I heard what I had been seeking.
I heard an embrace of love, of exquisite acceptance of the parting of breath. And most magically displayed, for all youth to witness. You stunned me, in awe I sat, having just experienced such raw expression, with open finality. Most of all I heard a man standing tall and mighty, at the doors, leaving the room with such love for that which you are departing from, and equal love for the next room you are entering.I heard today you stood up once more. I heard you departed with your breath. I heard so strongly your embrace of life, so alive were you.
So full of life are you.
Being witness to your death of life, I see that through dancing with death, you have become closer to life. And now you live on through another realm we call death, more loudly than ever do I hear you alive.
In memory of Nick Thomas.”
My wife said that one could have heard a pin drop after this contribution. It was as though Flora had introduced a note of holy truth, of what is truly real, into the gathering.
Philip Larkin, himself either an agnostic or an atheist and not known for his charitable feelings towards others, was nevertheless a true poet; and as a true poet, from time to time he was able to get in touch with a reality greater than his curmudgeonly persona would normally admit to. One of his best-known poems is An Arundel Tomb, inspired by the 14th century tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel in Chichester Cathedral. Above the tomb lie the carved statues of the Earl and his wife, as if asleep in bed:
An Arundel Tomb
Side by side, their faces blurred
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd–
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends could see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
Their air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Larkin’s poem is sometimes seen as ironical (eg the earl and countess lie in stone, with the word ‘lie’ to be taken in the sense of telling a lie – the stone tomb is a public statement that wouldn’t have corresponded to the actual human reality of the marriage) yet the last stanza of the poem, despite the “almost-instinct almost true”, seems to contradict his cynical pessimism. And indeed, it is true – what remains, what will survive of us after everything else has gone, is love.