As the old year of 2016 is now dying, here are some of my favourite pieces of writing about death.
This came to mind because of the very recent death of Richard Adams. The death scene which ends Watership Down – well, there must be a German word which describes knowing something is sentimental, yet still being moved by it. Disneyschmerz perhaps? The nature-loving agnostic imagines an afterlife with as false a comfort as angels escorting the departed to heaven yet a rabbit soul eternally scampering through the beech woods has great charm. By now the reader has come to like and respect Hazel and enjoy the rabbit’s eye view of the English countryside, in whose pockets between roads, housing and farms the rabbits make their lives.
One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as in days gone by. He had been dreaming in a confused way — something about rain and elder bloom ~ when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly beside him — no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first. Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to me?”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said, “Yes, I know you.”
“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”
They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay, keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right — and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.
Shakespeare was much obsessed with deaths – 74 of them in his plays. Someone did a play which featured them all.
These death scenes though are mostly violent sword stabbings, with the occasional strangulation and poisoning so I’ll quote the death of Falstaff reported in Henry V.
ACT II SCENE III London. Before a tavern.
Enter PISTOL, Hostess, NYM, BARDOLPH, and BOY
HOSTESS Prithee, honey-sweet husband, let me bring thee to Staines.
PISTOL No; for my manly heart doth yearn.
BARDOLPH Be blithe: Nym, rouse thy vaunting veins:
BOY Bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.
BARDOLPH Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!
HOSTESS Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play withflowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
The Hostess would have been accustomed to tend the dying at a time when the women of the household did the nursing.
The Death of the Mrs Proudie from The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
Trollope wrote 6 volumes about Cathedral politics in Barsetshire. One day in his club he overheard two men complaining that he was reintroducing the same old characters, including Mrs Proudie and how tired they were of it. So he told the men that he would kill her off that day.
Mrs Proudie of much reforming Evangelical energy has dominated her husband the bishop to carry out her will to the point of utterly humiliating him so they are now bitterly estranged.
Mrs. Proudie’s own maid, Mrs. Draper by name, came to him and said that she had knocked twice at Mrs. Proudie’s door and would knock again. Two minutes after that she returned, running into the room with her arms extended, and exclaiming, “Oh, heavens, sir; mistress is dead!” Mr. Thumble, hardly knowing what he was about, followed the woman into the bedroom, and there he found himself standing awestruck before the corpse of her who had so lately been the presiding spirit of the palace.
The body was still resting on its legs, leaning against the end of the side of the bed, while one of the arms was close clasped round the bed-post. The mouth was rigidly closed, but the eyes were open as though staring at him. Nevertheless there could be no doubt from the first glance that the woman was dead. ..
The bishop when he had heard the tidings of his wife’s death walked back to his seat over the fire, ….. But there was no sound; not a word, nor a moan, nor a sob. It was as though he also were dead, but that a slight irregular movement of his fingers on the top of his bald head, told her [Mrs Draper] that his mind and body were still active. ..
She had in some ways, and at certain periods of his life, been very good to him. …..She had never been idle. She had never been fond of pleasure. She had neglected no acknowledged duty. He did not doubt that she was now on her way to heaven. He took his hands down from his head, and clasping them together, said a little prayer. It may be doubted whether he quite knew for what he was praying. The idea of praying for her soul, now that she was dead, would have scandalized him. He certainly was not praying for his own soul. I think he was praying that God might save him from being glad that his wife was dead.
(As a strict Protestant, Bishop Proudie would not pray for a soul whose destiny is decided at death.)
A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir
After a long agony of being treated for cancer, Simone de Beauvoir’s mother finally dies. Her sister, Poupette, is at the death bed. De Beauvoir was an atheist, her mother a devout Catholic.
Maman had almost lost consciousness. Suddenly she cried, “I can’t breathe!” her mouth opened, her eyes stared wide, huge in that wasted, ravaged face: with a spasm she entered into coma..
Poupette rang me up: I did not answer. The operator went on ringing for half an hour before I woke. Meanwhile Poupette went back to Maman; already she was no longer there – her heart was beating and she breathed, sitting there with glassy eyes that saw nothing. And then it was over. “The doctors said she would go out like a candle: it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all,” said my sister, sobbing.
But, Madame,” replied the nurse, “I assure you it was a very easy death.”
“Maman” though religious did not ask for a priest – de Beauvoir concludes:-
“She knew what she ought to have said to God – “Heal me. But Thy will be done: I acquiesce in death.” She did not acquiesce. In this moment of truth she did not choose to utter insincere words…
Maman loved loved life as I love it and in the face of death she had the same feeling of rebellion that I have. During her last days I received many letters with remarks on my most recent book: “If you had not lost your faith death would not terrify you so,” wrote the devout, with rancorous commiseration. Well-intentioned readers urged, “Disappearing is not of the least importance: your works will remain.” And inwardly I told them all that they were wrong. Religion could do no more for my mother than the hope of posthumous success could for me. Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life immortality is no consolation for death.
A devout Christian, C S Lewis did take consolation in his wife’s immortality though the whole of A Grief Observed is about the despair and misery at his loss of faith that he undergoes after her painful death (cancer again). He longs for her undeath but at the end thinks she has been transfigured into something resembling pure intelligence, away from her torturing body:-
How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, “I am at peace with God.” She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all’ eterna fontana.
The last words in Italian being Dante’s view of his beloved Beatrice in a blissful afterlife.
Lewis’s view of death is harsher in Till We Have Faces, a surprisingly feminist work. Orual the heroine is about to enter into single combat with an enemy which will decide the fate of their city. Her father, the king and a cruel brute, has been lying helpless with a stroke. She is in the royal Bedchamber, searching out armour.
And it was when we were most busied that the Fox’s voice from behind said, “It’s finished.” We turned and looked. The thing on the bed which had been half-alive for so long was dead; had died (if he understood it) seeing a girl ransacking his armoury.
“Peace be upon him,” said Bardia. “We’ll be done here very shortly. Then the women can come to wash the body.” And we turned again at once to settle the matter of the hauberks.
And so the thing I had thought of for so many years at last slipped by in a huddle of business which was, at that moment, of more consequence. An hour later, when I looked back, it astonished me. Yet I have often noticed since how much less stir nearly everyone’s death makes than you expect. Men better loved and more worthy loving than my father go down making only a small eddy.
How the world shrugs off our death is brutally stated by A E Housman’s in Is My Team Ploughing:-
So to all, a long and healthy life, and then a quick and easy death, causing the least amount of nuisance and hassle.