The death of anyone represents the loss of unique experiences and relationships. People may have similar pathways through life, but they are never identical. One of my favourite quotes from recent years was in The Guardian and came in an article reflecting on the mind in a self-help culture. It touched on ‘solipsism’, the idea that the self alone is real. The humour reminds us that when someone dies their particular perception of the world – of us – goes with them.
The theologian Alvin Plantinga claims once to have visited a university department where one elderly, frail professor was a solipsist. “We take very good care of him,” a younger academic told Plantinga, “because when he goes, we all go…”Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian 2014
Familiar figures pass out of life every year, with the certainty of an ebbing tide. Yet since March 2020 this has taken a dramatic turn for many, with losses far in excess of recent years. For some families it must feel less like the gradual melt than a sheering away of substantial heritage and personal association. I’ll never forget the family I met in the early 1990s who requested the simplest funeral I could arrange: they had attended too many in recent months. While COVID-19 may have taken far more people into the shadows of multiple bereavements, it has always been a feature in the lives of the few. At the same crematorium, on another occasion, I led the funeral of a husband and wife – dying just days apart from unrelated conditions.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.TS Eliot, Little Gidding
The departure of people who are prominent in our lives causes a moment of disturbance for many. When Nicholas Parsons died in January 2020 it connected me instantly with memories from my grandmother’s kitchen. As a very young child I recall her delight with the new radio show, Just a Minute (1967), which she found an entertaining companion while cooking. People whose voices we hear, and whose images we see, are part of the social world we inhabit.
Jewish teaching and the Quran both emphasise that saving a life has the value of saving a world. Perhaps this recognises the sense that we each have a unique perception of existence and, when we go, this distinctive experience of the world is lost. Others will come – but none will be the same.
“whoever saves one life […] saves an entire world”Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5
Yet for each of us ‘there is a time to die’, and for all of us there is the experience of loss. Physical life cannot be extended forever. How we travel with this knowledge and experience is a key part of what it means to be human. Can we be at peace with it and live well while recognising the loss which death brings?
I hope that in the aftermath of the pandemic a new openness about mortality might be born. Before COVID-19 arrived there were already initiatives to encourage people to talk candidly with family and friends. Eventually, when we can gather together and grieve, perhaps we can find new courage to have much needed conversations. To live with greater transparency the reality of limited time in this world – and enable our unique experience of life to be known, shared and honoured.