Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Death wishes

I'm very much enjoying Julian Barnes' Nothing to be frightened of, partly because it is an excellently humane discussion of death, thoughts about death, grief and mortality (something of a professional interest of mine) and partly because of the occasional appearances in it of Julian's brother Jonathan. There's a nice list of reviews on the Barnes website here. I haven't been through them all but I did notice John Carey in the Sunday Times manages mistakenly to credit Seneca with the invention of the Symmetry argument: 'the time before your birth was no harm to you, so too will be the time after your death'. (Barnes' self-centred-- and surely jokey -- reply to the argument is worth a second thought, though.)

It has made me think over various things which I might come back to here now and then. First, there is an interesting exchange between the J. Barneses over the sense that can be given to the familiar funeral observation that X is 'what so-and-so would have wanted'... Is such a thought just plain silly?

It depends on what the implied antecedent of this claim is. It is certainly silly, I think, if the thought is something like: 'Had so-and-so been here [sc. at her funeral], this is what she would have wanted'. I suppose there might be some far-out view of post mortem existence which believes that it is possible to witness one's own funeral, perhaps even experience being buried or cremated, but even on this view the wish ought to be expressed not in the remote conditional form but in a plain indicative: 'It is what so-and-so wants', or '... did want', '.. said she wanted' etc. I suppose the fact that it is not in the indicative is meant to convey the idea that in fact no one can be pleased at how one's own funeral is being conducted, but once you have grasped that point then it's probably important to go on to see that given this fact then it becomes non-sensical to worry about whether the funeral would or would not meet the approval of the deceased. There are views which hold that it does indeed matter to the deceased how their interests and wishes are treated after their death but, again, holding one of these would best be served by simply saying: this is what so-and-so did want.

So the only proper sense I think that can be given to the familiar kind of wish is that it conveys the idea that such-and-such is what so-and-so would have wanted had we bothered to ask her what kind of music, say, she wanted at the funeral. That is, while she was alive, this is the sort of thing she would have requested for her funeral. Whether it is rational to have preferences about how one's remains and memory are treated after one's death is another question entirely, of course.

1 comment:

RJR said...

I have been planning my own funeral for many a year, and the current instructions are kept with my will. I haven't read Barnes's book, but isn't the "what she would have wanted" thing really about the survivors? It's wierd when someone you love dies, and you have to switch from saying "I love him" to "I loved him" even though your love is still in the present tense for you... In a funeral you express your knowledge of them by singing their favourite hymn, or by not having any cut flowers, or no mention at all of God, or whatever you think they would have wanted, and in that way you get to do something about a relationship that has suddenly shifted so completely. When you say "X is what she would have wanted" I don't think that means "She wanted X" or that she ever thought about her funeral or that if you had asked she would have been prepared to think about her funeral and request X; I think What you're really saying is, I knew this person, and I knew what made them different from other people, they may be gone and incapable of wanting anything (probably) but I still have this model of them in my head that predicts their behaviour, and I want to make a tribute, maybe a small sacrifice of inconvenience, to express that knowledge. My Granny's funeral, for example, was massively inconvenient and logistically difficult for everyone involved, and several of us agreed that this was entirely appropriate to her character. At my Grandad's memorial service we sang his favourite Crusader songs loudly and out of tune; it must have looked strange to many of the people there to see his grand-daughters giggling, but it was just so entirely Grandad-like.

I think what I'm actually trying to express is that funerals aren't completely about the deceased, or about the attendees, but about a third thing, the connection between them. I went to a wonderfully expressive funeral at Trinity once, of a fellow who died far too young of a sudden rampaging cancer (there was an added poignancy in that we all assumed it was AIDS, though I don't know if that was the case). He'd planned his funeral and it said, in elegant terms, that he did not want to die, and this was entirely appropriate. My own funeral tries to combine an acknowledgement of the awe of death with a Christian defiance in its face, and I have an excellent Donne reading with a metaphor which I think will make those who knew me smile. What I want from it is for those I love and who loved me to express sadness while also defying it. But if I live long enough to die alone and forgotten in an old people's home then they can put me out in a wheelie bin for the dustmen to collect for all I care.