Tuesday, December 30, 2008

death songs and funeral blues

i started my month-long series of articles peering into the secretive world of death today by interviewing buffy harper, a catholic and a lay chaplain at the QEII, for metro's workology section.

death is a rare and much-feared intruder for most of us, but it's a close colleague for her. in fact i interviewed her in between appointments with dying women. it is a strange and disturbing thing that death is so alien to us. when someone we love dies, professionals - strangers - take over. they come in and take the body, clean the body, do whatever it is embalmers do to bodies, lead a service for the dead person, build a coffin, dig a hole and bury your loved one. we treat death like a highly contagious disease.

i have heard that hospitals have trick gurneys with a magician-like holding area underneath. the body is stuck in there and wheeled down the hall, lest any of us become dispirited in the business of living.

harper says death isn't as scary as it's made out to be. 'it's not the enemy,' she told me. she sees it every day and on many nights, when she's called into the hospital to deal with some disaster or other.

we are vaguely led to believe that we are immune to death - or at least immune until we are 105 and shot by a jealous lover - and the shock of finding out this lie must add deeply to the trauma of dying or watching someone you love die.

a good friend of mine died when i lived in edinburgh. he was an oldish man and his death was no surprise. he died at home, surrounded by friends holding hands and singing. that night, his body was laid out in a coffin in his room so people could sit with him one last time. it was very good: we all felt this was our bertie, and his body should be with us.

i asked harper why she kept coming to work, given the emotional battering she suffers second hand. she didn't even pause: because death is going to happen, and people are going to be traumatized, and it doesn't do anyone any good if she looks away. by being there, but not flinching when death knocks on the door, she can ease the pain of the dying, and those left to mourn them.

all of this got me thinking about two of my favourite death poems: ts eliot's The Hollow Men and wh auden's Funeral Blues.

the first clip comes from apocalypse now, with marlon brando as kurtz, reading the poem. the second is john hannah in a extraordinary performance from 4 weddings and a funeral. i love the eliot poem (which delightfully enough starts by quoting heart of darkness, the book that became apocalypse now) and used language and images from it and from the wastelands throughout black snow.

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