It is the first week of January, and I’m standing in the Chapel of the Nine Altars at Durham Cathedral. In front of me lies a gravestone, on top of which lies my four-year-old nephew, acting out his current obsession. Behind me are the remains and shrine of Saint Cuthbert. To my left, an altar to Saint Aiden and further left still, another altar marked by a Paula Rego painting of Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, with her son, the future King Duncan, at her knees. Above me, my nephew, Cuthbert, Aiden, Rego, Margaret and Duncan, a telescope, the most expensive ever, is unfolding its protective gold membrane. It will, we are told, see so far back in time and space that we will have pictures of the moment of creation itself.
My nephew’s concern, even delight, with death – he’d previously performed from the stage of his father’s shoulders and for the benefit of an audience queuing for lunch the jolly charade of a person being hanged – seems perfectly reasonable. After all, with the dawning sense that he was not must come the possibility that he may not always be, but will return to some hazy otherwhere, an otherwhere possibly less terrifying to him than to his elders. It is only as we get older that we demand to know the specifics of life’s deal and find their lack discomforting. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the age, and for my part, the party game, Statues, always brought to mind casts of the victims of Vesuvius at Pompeii. More traditionally, but in these days of pandemic no less topically, my playground games included regularly falling down once the ring of roses was rung, flicking daisies as Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, and knowing that the bells of Saint Clement’s led only to a chopper to chop off my own.
In later years, I grew out of such danses macabres and put questions of death and origins out my mind. (This too seems normal: my nephew’s six-year-old brother now enjoys the more concrete speculations of his immediately observable world.) I have managed this to such a degree that I am prepared to let questions of afterlife and forelife take care of themselves and wonder what useful knowledge the gilded telescope can possibly bring. (I am not a scientist of space-time or even physics, but one theory tells us that the force of the Big Bang exploded the concentration of all matter from one tiny place with such force that it escaped its own gravitational pull. Eventually, that force will dissipate, gravity will reassert itself, and all matter will rush back to a single place, whereupon the process will repeat itself. Apart from telling me that we inhabit a gigantic, self-propelling accordion, I am at a loss about what to do with yet another cosmic metaphor.) Still, indifference to whence I came and where I am going is not the same as indifference to the facts of my coming and going, or the temporary presence in between. For this reason alone, it is worth reading the mediation on death by, Thomas More, a sixteenth-century English bureaucrat and Catholic martyr.
Despite the different theological, cosmic, scientific and political speculations, the facts of the matter have not substantially changed. For all that we debate the right to death and genetic research on embryos, human or otherwise – even abortion, as if abortion were a twentieth-century invention – science has merely extended our concepts of the alpha and omega of existence, neither removing them nor doing much to clarify the ethics around them. (If only from the perspective of public health, pretty much everyone agrees that a physical body can’t be a little bit alive or a little bit dead. We all tend to dispose of our loved ones entirely, rather than keep the purifying bodies hanging around.) Yet on such concerns, a bewildering variety of cultures and beliefs stand, only disagreeing about under what circumstances life or death can be declared. In this sense, death is the measure of ourselves as individuals and the cultures to which we belong. Our response to death can tell us who we are.