I’ve been attending funerals recently, too many, and it is a practice that makes someone in his seventieth year – the Psalmist’s “three score years and ten” – think rather more closely about death than one does earlier in life. John Donne said no man is an island, and any man’s death diminishes me, but I hope we can agree some deaths diminish us more than others. This is not to say that some dead people are worth less than others, but to reflect what we know, when we’re not feigning, to be the truth. I hope that those involved in the events below can forgive me for using them as the basis of some thinking on an awkward area.
My mother-in-law died just before Christmas. She was a quiet, organised woman, who picked up her life with dignity and calmness after being widowed. She was always considerate, and got particular pleasure out of her family life: she’d sit in the corner of a family party and marvel that she was the start of so many and so much. Her health began to fail this year – she was 88 – and she moved into a care home. Just before Christmas, we had a small family get-together. She enjoyed a buffet snack and some wine, but said she was tired and wanted to rest. She died in her sleep shortly afterwards without really waking.
My former Vice Principal died just after Christmas. The family asked me for some remarks at her funeral, and I’ve posted them below. Ruth was an extraordinarily capable person: we discovered at the funeral all the different areas where she took a lead. It should have been no surprise, for example, that her local community bagged her as committee secretary. Her family had a tradition of a New Year walk, and it was there that she had her brain haemorrhage. She was in her mid 60s, and seemed fit as a fiddle – a tiny wisp of a woman, given to jeans and stout boots. Her death was not just distressing to the family and friends who filled the crematorium, but bloody unfair – she was an inveterate traveller, and would have enjoyed the twenty years of globe-trotting she earned.
And then I met a former colleague who had lost her son last year – he committed suicide whilst suffering severe depression. I think this must be one of the cruellest blows any parent is asked to endure. My brother died in a road crash when he was 19, and that was awful, but in a way it is explicable. Accidents happen, and sometimes they happen to people we know and love. But they do not keep coming back with questions about what could have been done, and could we have done better. There’s a view that ‘suicide is selfish’ because of the pain and distress left behind, but that seems to me self-centred: the unhappiness (what an inadequate word for what must have been felt) which comes as the toll of depression must make us all generous in our judgements.
So, three deaths, and all of them different. I could instance some more – the superb wife of a colleague, who worked tirelessly for opportunity and justice in Sheffield before and carried on, right through her terminal cancer. What’s the message from all this ? Nothing simple, I’m sure. One is to be kind to people, and that’s not a bad piece of advice anyway. The things I most regret about my life are the times when I could have been kinder, and wasn’t. The other message is carpe diem: enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.