The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 17th, 2008

I’m not religious, but there’s something about funerals

‘Domini, domini sunt exitus mortis.” That is the text of my favourite of John Donne’s sermons, Death’s Duel. “Unto God the Lord belong the issues of death.” The trouble for me is that they don’t, much though I love Donne’s religious writing and many other people’s, too.

Our deaths and what follows do not belong to God: I do not and cannot believe in any kind of divinity that shapes our ends. For me there is no deliverance from death, or through death or by death, as Donne elaborately argues; there is only a deliverance, if one can truly call it that, from life, and that is usually unwelcome.

Last week I went to the funeral service of Simon Gray, the writer. It was held in a handsome Victorian gothic church, with an excellent choir, traditional hymns and a reading from the New Testament. The place was packed with people who clearly loved him. In one of the most moving and memorable parts of the service, Gray’s close friend Harold Pinter managed – despite his illness – to get to the lectern to read a passage from T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. I don’t suppose anyone who was there will ever forget it. At first Pinter seemed almost unable to speak; cancer has damaged his magnificent voice. But soon it became stronger and his power as an actor filled the church . . .

The reading was from Little Gidding, Section V, beginning What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.

It ended with the lines a little further on: And all shall be well and All manner of things shall be well When the tongues of flame are infolded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one.

These words have an incantatory magic, especially when spoken in such a context by such a man. They have great power to move. And yet, to someone like me, someone who does not believe in the Christian God or in any other, they are literally meaningless. I don’t know what to make of them in any serious sense and I wonder very much in what way other people understand them.

Pinter is not a religious man and nor, I am fairly sure, was Gray. Nor, I suspect, were many of the congregation, although I have no idea whether any of them felt the same disquiet that I did.

I imagine that most of them felt, whatever their views, that this rather traditional service was the right thing, in many senses.

I felt that strongly at my mother’s funeral, which was conducted, as she would have wanted, according to the old prayer book’s order for the burial of the dead and its beautiful words. She was an outspoken agnostic, with a leaning towards atheism, but she believed as strongly as I do that our traditional rites of passage are important, if only for the survivors. So, having scarcely ever darkened the doors of our parish church, three minutes from our house, she is now buried in its churchyard.

Something strange seems to happen at one of the most important and terrible moments of life and I hardly believe it is only to me; throughout one of the central moments of our culture and our personal experiences one has to keep editing out, so to speak, the bits that one truly cannot accept. This is even worse if one is unlucky enough to have a silly or tactless vicar, a rash intruding priest who tramples on gentle Anglican ambiguities and uncertainties.

I feel the same reading religious poetry or sermons, some of which I love. Poetry, like religion, is supposed to be about truth, or at least to be truthful, and yet if one has constantly to translate, so to speak, some of its central ideas into another idiom – if one has to translate the religious notion of redemption into something secular, for example – there comes a moment when it loses its power, or at least when one cannot take it seriously.

Some people I talked to, a couple of them actors and agnostics, were not troubled by any of this. They said that they are affected by sound, performance, the power of words; they don’t seem to be confined by my literal-mindedness. I do see that literal-mindedness can be petty and reductive; a great deal of communication happens outside literal meaning. All the same, for an unbeliever what meaning can there be at all in Julian of Norwich’s saying that all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well? Words are only partly music; they must offer sense as well as sensation.

Yet what alternative can there be to one’s own tradition? It is hard, unilaterally and suddenly, to create a new ritual. The famous television executive whose idea of an alternative initiation ceremony for his new baby was anointing him, in front of a crowd of A-listers, with Tibetan yak’s butter proved the point; alternatives tend to get silly. The constraints of tradition are important. A woman friend recently buried her long-term companion in a simple wicker basket in a West Country wood and that doesn’t seem very final, somehow.

We had the same problem with my parents-in-law, who were entirely uninterested in religion although in some ways they were extremely conventional. My father-in-law always made it clear that he didn’t want any funeral rites, possibly to avoid unbecoming scenes on the occasion from my histrionic mother-in-law, so she and her daughters-in-law stayed behind while her sons had him burnt and scattered his ashes on the finishing line at Newmarket. He had been champion amateur jockey for many years before the war and was a great racing man.

That did not strike me as a proper end and my mother-in-law’s was even more unsatisfactory. After her cremation, her sons left her ashes in a Bury St Edmunds crematorium for several years; I used to get tactful calls from time to time from the crematorium staff asking when we were going to remove mother. In the end her sons scattered her around the statue of a horse she had owned. It lacked a sense of an ending.

The issues of death belong to the living although, of course, Donne used the word “issues” quite differently from its contemporary meaning. For the living in our culture – or what was our culture – it is hard to find any better sense of an ending than the comfort of familiar tradition, the incantations of the Anglican rites and the communion not of saints, but of friends.