This is Marcel Proust in Alan Bennett’s play A Private Function. He is speaking about war. But he could have been speaking about a pandemic. How right he is. We can scarcely get our minds round the scale of the mortality due to Covid19. Twenty thousand and more in our own country, hundreds of thousands worldwide. We could not have imagined six months ago how suddenly catastrophe can come upon us.
We try to make sense of the numbers through the arithmetic of morbidity - the statistics, the charts, the graphs. We study the probabilities, the trends, make comparisons with other countries, calibrate our exposure to risk. It’s clarifying and necessary. But what cold data can never do is convey any sense of the human tragedy that is happening around us. It’s crude to say that the amassing of metrics treats the dead as if they had died like flies. (It’s not even true, given the respectful way the figures have mostly been presented at the Government’s daily media briefings.) But on our bad days, the global calculus of death can feel like that, unremittingly desperate.
For more and more of us, the virus is no longer a drama happening ‘out there’, safely beyond our immediate experience. It is now touching us directly. We’re not spectators any longer. Maybe we’ve succumbed to infection, felt its impact for ourselves. We may have become seriously ill, hospitalised, been on a ventilator fighting for life. It may have affected our mental health, perhaps precipitated an episode of depression or suicidal thoughts. Or meant that a cancer test or ‘routine’ operation (which of course no operation ever is entirely) has had to be postponed, and that too will have life-changing effects.
And by the day, many more of us are bereaved. Someone close to us, a family member or friend, has died. Or someone we were less intimate with but still knew - a neighbour or work colleague perhaps. Or someone further removed, a friend of a friend, a distant relative, a friend from the past we have long lost touch with, or someone we’ve got to know on social media. It doesn’t matter how far removed they are. The point is that the person who’s died is not a mere statistic, lost among the nameless myriads who have also died ‘like flies’. This was someone real, a human being with a face, a name and a story. And we had a place somewhere in their concentric circles of belonging. However close to us or distant, they had become part of us and we of them.
‘One death means more than a thousand.’ This seems to me to be a clue to how we could try to respond to death happening before our eyes on such a scale. We need to individualise death, personalise it. We need to focus on the individual human beings behind the daily stats, the men, women and children who like us are not islands but are ‘part of the main’, each of whose deaths, as John Donne famously said, ‘diminishes me’. I’m suggesting that it matters because this is work we need to do for the dead.
How do we do this? By starting with the people we know, or know of, who have died. My first cousin’s husband. My sister’s schoolfriend’s partner. The local councillor I knew and worked with years ago. The father of a friend on Facebook. The young nurse who was a friend of someone I got talking to in the village. A colleague’s parish priest. I can take the trouble consciously to ‘remember‘ them, name them, weep for them, cherish them in my mind and heart for a little while. Not necessarily just the once on first hearing the news that they had died but maybe from time to time, especially on the day of their funeral if we know when it’s taking place. With only handfuls of mourners allowed at a graveside or crematorium during lockdown, there’s immense strength to be drawn from the knowledge that others too are ‘present’ through an act of mindful embrace.
To me as a person of faith, it’s the most natural thing in the world to pray for the dead. It’s as natural to intercede for the departed in the presence of Light and Love as it is to pray for the living. There’s no great mystery about this as far as I can see. Whatever we believe about an afterlife, our love for people and our duty of care towards them doesn’t suddenly stop when they die. Holding, honouring and cherishing in our hearts those whom we love but no longer see is certainly to keep memory alive. In times like these, nothing could be more important than to know that when we die we are not forgotten, that those who love us will go on loving us to their own lives’ end. It keeps the verbs of loving and caring in the present tense. As for God, it says of Jesus in the gospel that he loves ‘to the end’. It’s all I need to know, because it transcends the boundaries of time and space.
But if it’s true, and experience tells me that it’s likely to be, that ‘one death means more than a thousand’, then we need to recognise this in relation to all Covid19 victims including those we don’t know personally. My daily paper, like most others, has published articles featuring groups of people who have died as a result of the virus. It has highlighted those who served in the NHS. It has honoured people who kept essential services going as frontline workers. It has recognised men, women and children who died in hospitals and, in the past week, in care homes. And so many others. The elderly. The young. The homeless. People of minority ethnicity. The LGBT community. Those from other counties who came to Britain to make a better life for themselves and their families. The all-but-forgotten who died alone in the world and had no one to attend their funerals and grieve for them.
They make painful reading, these potted biographies, the photographs, the heartfelt tributes from family, friends and colleagues, the volume of naked grief that pours off the page. ‘I just can’t get over that I didn’t get to say goodbye or be with her after 52 years of marriage. It’s so cruel’ I read yesterday. This was Tony from Birmingham, speaking about his beloved wife Suzanne. ‘She was wonderful.’ I stopped to take in that one word, such a simple yet eloquent tribute to a love that had grown over a lifetime. ‘She did everything’ he said, explaining how she was active in the community and had chaired the local Flower Club. I tried to imagine her life and his together, the beauty and yes, the wonder that an intimate relationship can flourish across half a century and more.
The media are doing us a great service by this simple, respectful way of personalising death. They are helping us to honour people as individuals, not simply aggregate them namelessly into the swollen mass of the thousands of dead, as if they had died ‘like flies’. This is what I mean when I talk about the work we can and should do for the dead. We may or may not have a religious faith, but that doesn’t matter. Amid the welter of Coronavirus news we can take the trouble to read about a few of those who have died, and be alongside them in some simple act of the imagination, whether it’s recollection, mental embrace, lighting a candle, offering a silent prayer or simply speaking their name. It’s the least we can do to pay our respects to the departed in this way, take it upon ourselves to undertake a little ‘heart work’ for them.
The few minutes it takes to read a dozen tributes seems little enough. Yet to do it mindfully, trying to be present to people we do not know, could be a powerful act of human solidarity and reverence for life in the face of sickness and death. It’s a way of bearing witness, at least to ourselves, to the truth that we are one human family and are in this together. Lighting a candle, metaphorically or actually, feels like a sign of hope. What could be more important?
Requiescant in pace.
I’d just published this blog when my wife drew my attention to this article in The Guardian,’How reading obituaries can humanise a crisis’. It’s well worth reading.