The rationalist way of death
Given that it has historically been annexed by religion, how should the non-believer mark death? Jonathan Rée dons his weeds and joins the procession. Illustration Jessica Chandler
Rationalists and secularists in the old plain style were very clear about death and dying, or at least they tried to be. “It’s just a nothing,” they would say: “the lights go out and then the curtain falls.” I won’t exist after I die, but then I didn’t exist before I was born, so what’s the big deal? It’s going to happen anyway, so just get over it. We are only forked animals after all, and when the time comes you should give my body to medical science, or burn it and use it as fertiliser; or why not eat it, if you’re hungry, or feed it to the pigs? And for goodness sake, don’t worry about how I died – whether peacefully or in pain – and don’t speculate about my last thoughts, my last sentiments or my last words. Why attach more importance to my dying moments than to any other part of my life? As for the business of seeing the body and saying goodbye, and the trouble and expense of coffins and flowers and funerals: what are they but relics of morbid superstitions that we should have got rid of centuries ago? So no fuss, please: the world belongs to youth and the future, not death and the past: go ahead and have a party if you must, with plenty to drink, but no speeches, nothing maudlin, no tears, nothing that might silence the laughter of children. And I beg you, no memorials of any kind: no stones, no plaques, no shrines, no park benches, no tree-plantings, no dedications: let the memory of who I was die with me.
In practice it has not always been so easy, and those of us who think of ourselves as CORPSES (Children of Rationalist Parents) may find ourselves seriously embarrassed when it comes to carrying out the wishes of our progenitors when they die. Bans on mourning and demands for oblivion are not going to have much effect when we are wracked with grief – when happiness is the last thing we want, when we find ourselves dwelling in remorse and remembrance and will not be comforted. Hence one of the most conspicuous elements in the transformation of rationalism in recent decades: the rise of a burgeoning service industry supplying secular celebrants for humanist funerals, to fill a ritualistic gap that earlier generations would not have wanted to acknowledge.
The decline of hardline rationalism about bereavement may be part of a global social trend towards blubbering sentimentality and public exhibitions of grief: Princess Diana and all that. But there could be something more serious behind it too: a suspicion that the no-nonsense approach to death advocated by pure-minded atheists bears a horrible resemblance to the attitudes that lie behind the great political crimes of the 20th century – Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massified deaths of two world wars, the millions discarded as obstacles to progress in the Soviet Union and China, and of course the Nazi death camps.
If Holocaust stories are uniquely hard to bear, it is not because they describe suffering, death and humiliation on a bewildering scale, but because of the calculated impersonality and disinterested anonymity with which they were inflicted on their victims. In a restrained and startlingly beautiful new memoir called Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, the historian Otto Dov Kulka allows himself, after 70 years of reticence, to recall his life as a little boy in the grotesque quasi-normality of the “family camp” Auschwitz-Birkenau – an institution designed to provide Red Cross officials with living evidence that the inmates of the camps in Poland* were happy and healthy and well looked after, though in reality they were destined for extermination like everyone else.
In a pivotal chapter Kulka prints translations of three poems, written in Czech from the point of view of a young female prisoner. One of them declares that “I’d sooner die a coward than have blood on my hands,” and others speak of the prospect of leaving nothing to be remembered by: there will be no “wreaths or wrought-metal grilles” for those about to die, or for “betrayed youth” – but perhaps “no monument is needed.” These are fine poems, but more than that too. They were written, as Kulka explains, on flimsy letter paper and thrust into the hands of a Kapo by a girl about to walk into a gas chamber. Later they were passed to Kulka’s father, and, by a series of chances, saved from the destruction that engulfed almost everything else.
No one will ever know who the poet was, what she looked like, who she loved or where she came from: her name has been wiped from the historical record, along with any facts or memories or anecdotes that might distinguish her from six million other victims of mass murder. Maybe it’s because I’m a sentimentalist that I feel twinges of reverence for the words on those frail pieces of paper. Maybe my fellow atheists will accuse me of religion-envy, but I cannot help lamenting the impossibility of an individual commemoration for the lost poet. The fact that no trace remains seems like an aggravation of a crime against humanity, a gratuitous exacerbation of injustice.
As far as the old-style rationalists were concerned, any desire to ritualise death and remember the dead was a sign of a failure of nerve, and an inability to grow out of religious indoctrination – especially all that Christian stuff about personal survival, arraignment before a divine judge and consignment to heaven or hell. But in fact Christianity does not speak with one voice when it comes to death and dying. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus issued a severe reprimand to a disciple who wanted to give his father a proper funeral: get back to work at once, he said, and “let the dead bury their dead.” The rebuke may seem like an enlightened anticipation of 20th-century rationalism, but it is also perfectly consistent with some main doctrines of Christianity: if the body is just a temporary home for an immortal soul, and a perpetual temptation to sin, then the sooner we shuffle it off the better.
The Egyptians, lacking the assurance of eternal life, had favoured mummification and entombment, at least for the ruling elite, while the Greeks and Romans preferred cremation and a good epitaph, and the Jews went in for speedy burials, usually in communal graves. But the Christians, with their confident expectation of a life after death, had no need for such pagan mumbo-jumbo.
On the whole the early Christians preferred burial to cremation, but they were not dogmatic about it and either way they tried to follow Jesus’s austere advice, eschewing funeral ritual except in special cases. They did not have to worry about the physical remains of Jesus himself, since they held that his body had been lifted up to heaven a couple of days after being taken down from the cross. But then there was Simon Peter, whom they took to be Jesus’s chosen successor as leader of his sect and founder of his church. Simon Peter had come to Rome, where he was eventually executed by crucifixion, on the orders of the Emperor Nero. But the Christians seem to have recovered his body and buryied it somewhere on the Mons Vaticanus on the west bank of the Tiber, and when they began to win tolerance in Rome, two centuries later, they built themselves a church whose altar was supposed to mark the site of St Peter’s grave.
By that time several thousand Christians had been murdered in Rome – burned alive as human torches, or torn apart by dogs or lions – and their co-religionists always did their best to defy imperial persecution by retrieving the bodies and laying them in vast underground catacombs, as if they were not dead but sleeping. (They referred to the catacombs as coemeteria, or “cemeteries”, borrowing the Greek word for a dormitory.) Ordinary martyrs were not given individual funeral rites, but members of the ecclesiastical elite could look forward to fully personalised ceremonies and permanent memorials. The official successors to St Peter – the Bishops of Rome, later known as Popes or Pontiffs – could expect to be buried in proximity to him inside his church on the Vatican. And then there were the saints, some of them quite humble, who were supposed to have performed miracles: their corpses, which were thought to retain some vestige of their unearthly powers, were liable to be dismembered so that communities of believers all over the empire could each have a holy finger or leg or head or heart to venerate – an abuse, no doubt, by the standards of modern healthcare, but still an honour of a kind.
When it comes to the treatment of dead bodies, there has always been a joker in the Christian theological pack: the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Building on various hints in the gospels and the book of Revelation, Christians came to think that God might blow a silver trumpet at any moment, to signal the end of the game of life on earth. When that day came, they thought, the bodies of true believers would regenerate and refurbish themselves, all present and correct and primed for eternal bliss. But the doctrine of resurrection was at constant risk of collapsing into bathetic comedy. Would it be dangerous to go out while the disassembled body parts of saints flew through the air for their ultimate reunion? Would cripples be cured, and amputees made whole? Would the slow work of the worms be undone in a trice?
And what about bodies that had been corrupted by illness, eaten by animals, or consumed by fire? If you wanted to preserve your simple Christian faith, it was best not to pry too far, but simply to accept that the matter had been left in good hands. But if the logistical problems of bodily resurrection were really going to be taken care of on the last day, then there was, as Jesus himself suggested, no real need to worry about the condition of a corpse: God was going to restore it anyway, making it good as new, without any help from his admirers. On the other hand it would be churlish to make his job more difficult than it had to be, at such a busy time, so Christians began to make a habit of leaving the bodies of their dead in a clean and tidy state, as their owners would hope to find them.
Christian attitudes to corpses are a mass of doctrinal confusion: a nightmare for the kind of intellectual historian who wants to make sense of past beliefs, but a gift to any writer with an eye for human oddity and an interest in our ability to believe impossible things. Hence the charm of How to Read a Graveyard, in which Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald, invites us to accompany him on trips to various cemeteries, from the grandest to the most unassuming. He begins in the caves and tunnels beneath St Peter’s in Rome, where the early Christian burial sites lie cheek by jowl with pagan ones, noting that the Christians did not share the pagan concern with recording the names of the deceased.
They may have thought that the task of identification could be left to God, but in any case they were, as Stanford demonstrates, forgiving and forgetful, and not really as interested in permanence as they pretended. Exceptions might be made for popes and saints, and later for emperors and their consorts, kings and queens, lords and ladies and great benefactors, but as a general rule the grave was only a temporary resting place, where a body might stay till it turned into a skeleton, at which point it could be removed to a charnel house or unceremoniously chucked away.
Moving on to an English country graveyard, Stanford explains how Christianity consolidated its position as the official religion of the Roman Empire from the 4th century on. Christian priests took over various civic functions as the old imperial structures crumbled, keeping written records of births, marriages and deaths, and taking responsibility for the disposal of dead bodies. They outlawed cremation, and abandoned the Roman practice of burying corpses outside city walls in favour of placing them in designated sites amidst the homes of the living. From the 7th century on, Christian burials would normally take place in a graveyard in the precincts of a church, whose ground would be specially blessed for the purpose, with trees to give it shade and a wall to mark its boundary.Before long, Christians came to believe that their chances of salvation would be set back if their bodies were not buried in consecrated church ground: and if you were unbaptised, or a felon, an adulterer, a bastard, a suicide or an impenitent sinner, then you would not be allowed in, thus risking terrible consequences in the hereafter.
There were also some non-ecclesiastical cemeteries, notably Bunhill Fields in East London, which opened in 1665 to receive cartloads of corpses of victims of the Great Plague. Afterwards Bunhill Fields became a thriving commercial enterprise, and a destination of choice for prominent and self-confident dissenters like John Bunyan, John Wesley and William Blake; but it seems that most nonconformists preferred to play safe, wangling a final resting place in consecrated ground, just in case.
The entrance to the churchyard, known as the lych-gate or corpse-gate, served as a kind of checkpoint. Dead bodies would have to wait their turn while the priest examined their credentials; if he declared himself satisfied they would be allowed to proceed, and be thrown into a common burial pit in their shrouds while he chanted a blessing over them. They could then rest assured that they would be prayed for – collectively if not by name – in daily church services in perpetuity. When the pit was full, it would be covered with quicklime and soil, and another dug alongside it; and once the entire churchyard was occupied, the first pit would be reopened to admit further corpses.
It was not till the 18th century that ordinary parishioners began to aspire to the ultimate perquisite of possessive individualism: a personal burial plot in consecrated ground. They were prepared to pay large sums for the privilege, and then some more for a coffin and a stone monument recording the names and dates of the deceased, together with a respectful epitaph and some edifying verses or mottoes.
But the real beneficiaries of the rise of post-mortem individualism were the new secular cemeteries. The first of them was at Père-Lachaise in Paris, created by Napoleon in 1804 partly to promote hygiene and efficiency, and partly as a blow against priestly monopoly. (The name may sound ecclesiastical, but its significance is purely geographical.)Like the old churchyards, Père-Lachaise worked on the assumption, usually unexpressed, that people will get over their bereavements sooner than they think, so that burial plots can be tactfully recycled after ten or twenty years, or perhaps fifty, depending how big a fee had been paid.
But this built-in impermanence did not prevent outbreaks of competitive monumentalism at Père-Lachaise, and the same phenomenon would be observed in the dozens of public and private cemeteries created in its wake, throughout Europe and in Britain as well – starting with Liverpool (1829), and then, following the cholera epidemic of 1831, Kensal Green (1833), Norwood (1838), Highgate (1839) and Paddington (1855). But ostentatious memorials went out of style during the 20th century, and Stanford reaches the end of his journey in a thriving new woodland cemetery where bodies are buried in paper coffins or wicker baskets or winding sheets, with no memorial apart from the grass, the trees, the rabbits and the birds.
In The Undiscovered Country, Carl Watkins covers many of the same issues as Stanford, but with a focus on England since the 15th century, and a wealth of serious scholarship and archival research. Watkins also highlights an important theme that Stanford left in the shadows: how traditional Christian practices surrounding death and burial were repudiated by the Protestant reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Catholic theologians had talked up the drama of the death bed, with indulgences, confessions and last rites, and they had constructed elaborate scenarios for the journeys that a soul may have to make between the moment of bodily death and the dawning of the last day. They told fine stories about heaven and hell, and even more elaborate ones about the various districts of limbo that await the unbaptised, and the departments of purgatory that accommodate different classes of sinners.
These tales offered them pretexts for impressive sermons, and frameworks for fanciful narratives and images, at the same time as allowing convenient compromises with surviving pagan beliefs about goblins, ghosts, ghouls and leprechauns, or the need to propitiate the unquiet souls of the dead. From a Protestant point of view, however, they were foaming sewers clogged with heathen impurities; and on top of that – as Luther and the other militant reformers insisted on pointing out – they had opened up tremendous business opportunities for vain and mercenary prelates. Terrified Catholics would spend vast fortunes on prayers and requiem masses, or chapels, endowments and colleges, in the hope of procuring advantages for themselves or their loved ones in limbo or purgatory, and getting to the front of the celestial queue. But if the reformers were right, limbo and purgatory were foul fabrications of the whore of Babylon: the plain truth was that when the last breath left a body, the soul either entered a state of deep and dreamless sleep till judgement day, or else it passed directly to whatever doom awaited it. Either way, the trade in intercessions for the dead was a cynical hoax, resting on a mass of absurd and grotesque superstitions; and the reformers denounced it with vehement rhetoric that passionate modern atheists will envy and admire.
From a Protestant perspective there was never any need for funeral ceremonies, shrouds or consecrated ground, and radical dissenters might choose to be buried in an ordinary field or garden without either a marker or a ministerial blessing; but none of them were prepared to take the next logical step and opt for cremation. In one of his most skilful and entertaining chapters Watkins reconstructs the story of William Price, an elderly and much revered doctor in Llantrisant, South Wales, who was spotted, one crisp Sunday night in January 1884, cavorting round a field above the town, clad in loose white robes and kicking at a barrel that was engulfed in flames.
A band of locals went up to investigate, overpowered the doctor and retrieved his barrel, which turned out to contain the half-burned body of a child. After being saved from an angry mob by a valiant constable, Doctor Price was able to tell his story to the local magistrate. He was not only a modern medical practitioner, he explained, but also a Druid healer, as could should be apparent from the way he dressed: white tunic, red waistcoat, green trousers and a fox-skin headdress over long plaits and a wild flowing beard. He had fathered a baby with a woman sixty years his junior, and when the child died in infancy he decided to dispose of the body by fire, in accordance not only with Eastern religious practices but also with ancient Druidic wisdom.
The case was referred to the Assizes at Cardiff, where Price appeared in his finery, to defend himself against the charge of failing to provide a decent burial for his child. The judge – the celebrated jurist Sir James Fitzjames Stephen – could not find anything in statute or common law to make cremation an offence, so the case was dismissed, and Price returned in triumph to Llantrisant. Leading clerics of the Church of England were appalled, maintaining that anything except a Christian burial was an affront to public decency. Despite their objections a public crematory furnace was fired up in Woking, Surrey, receiving its first human clients in 1885.
When Price died in 1893, well into his nineties and surrounded by a brood of young children, he had already made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with the industrial furnace in faraway Woking, so a vast pyre was built for him in Llantrisant, and twenty thousand well-wishers gathered to watch him make his pagan farewell to the world, and some Anglican ministers to ensure fair play. The church was beginning to make concessions to the modern way of death, and Hull got a crematorium without controversy in 1901, and Golders Green a year later, though the Catholics would not moderate their opposition till the 1960s. Regardless of religious sensitivities, however, one third of corpses in Britain were being disposed of through cremation by that time, and the figure has now risen to about three quarters: a triumph of modern scientific rationalism, you might say, following in the footsteps of Welsh Druidry.
The history of funeral practices has always had a political aspect as well as a religious one. Those whom the state condemns for capital crimes are liable to forfeit not only their lives but their corpses too: to be mutilated, or hung in chains, or publicly dissected. Similarly, those who give up their lives for the state, such as soldiers killed on active service, can expect a solemn official commemoration. The democratisation of warfare in modern times has seen young people dying for their countries in stupefying numbers, and – beginning in 1864 with the Arlington National Cemetery near Washington , DC – they have been commemorated in magnificent state-funded graveyards.
Sometimes, however, the bodies of the war dead are either unidentifiable or irretrievably lost: that was the fate, for example, of around a quarter of a million soldiers who died fighting for Britain in the First World War – a third of the total death-toll. In 1920 a military chaplain called David Railton proposed building a tomb in Westminster Abbey to house the arbitrarily selected body of a “warrior of unknown name”, which could then stand proxy for the rest. The suggestion was controversial, but it won the backing of the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. It was implemented later that year, and has been much copied since, the tomb of the unknown soldier functioning not as an excuse for military glorification, but as a simple focus for grief and unrequitable love.
Love has always been the main issue in our dealings with the dead; and love is nothing if not an attitude of one physical being towards another. The 17th-century poet John Donne, in an ingenious poem called “A Valediction, forbidding mourning”, tried to argue that a love that depends on the apprehension of another person’s body – on “eyes, lips and hands” – is the province of “dull sublunary lovers”, unlike the refined spiritual love – “like gold to aery thinnesse beat” – that dwells wholly in the mind. But Donne can never have convinced himself, let alone anyone else.
To love someone is to treasure the hint of a smile, the strength of a hand, the set of a jaw, the plant of a foot or the curl of a lock of hair. And one of the disconcerting things about death is that it does not immediately annihilate these charms, as we might expect and even hope: more than a trace of them lingers in the cold corpse. A fuss about a trifle, of course. Or perhaps not. It is easy to mock the foibles of others; rather harder to face up to our own.
Books under consideration in this article: Otto Dov Kulka, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (Allen Lane); Peter Stanford, How to Read a Graveyard: Journeys in the Company of the Dead (Continuum); Carl Watkins, The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead (The Bodley Head).
*This phrase as been altered by editors, from the original which read "Polish camps" so as not to cause offence. For further information see the entry on the Polish Death Camp controversy in Wikipedia