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Posts Tagged ‘taboo’

Interesting to read this short piece by Jenny McCartney about the way we try to hide from the reality of death in our Western culture. She doesn’t give any real spiritual perspective, and she doesn’t speculate about how this lack of a spiritual perspective might be the very cause of the problem she highlights – but her comments about how death has almost become taboo are worth reflecting on.

It is the fashion, in modern times, to emphasise the need for tastefulness in talking of death, of a certain concealing decorum. We used to be like this about sex, but that’s gone now: the media is saturated with sexual imagery and advice, and everywhere you turn, public figures are kissing each other lasciviously on the lips – particularly if they are glamorous women – and telling you more about their bedroom antics than anyone ever asked to know.

The taboo has simply shifted, however. As the door to the bedroom has been thrown open, access to the deathbed has been barred. No one seems to linger long there, conversationally or otherwise: too often, a death is treated like an embarrassing fact, a regrettable failure of life that is best hushed up.

We are built to cling to life, unless that instinct is withered in us through long suffering, extreme altruism or despair, and so when we read about the deaths of other people, we are moved partly because we start imagining our own: the pain of leaving the people we love, and their confusion at our departure. Or we think of the helplessness of watching someone we love slipping beyond our reach. The notion of death is so mysterious and enormous that, in many cases, it seems easier just to lock it away, although it has a way of escaping and sneaking up on our peripheral vision.

The rapid expansion of the “anti-ageing” industry in the West peddles an airbrushed vision of a world in which ageing or mortality can be almost indefinitely deferred by the dutiful ingestion of supplements and restless application of pseudo-scientific skin treatments. What it can’t offer, of course, is any guaranteed change to the final outcome.

Still, the option of pretending to ignore death (for a period of our lives, at least) has not been available to the bulk of humanity throughout history. In the 15th century, when the Ars moriendi, or “Art of Dying”, was written, the book desperately sought to popularise the concept of a “good death”, partly because – in the aftermath of the Black Death – an early demise was so frequent and lurid that some kind of etiquette guide was required. Both real-life accounts and novels were later preoccupied with the deathbed scene, which was, in many ways, the dramatic high point of a person’s life. It was their moment in which to forgive, regret, recant or curse, the final deal, the instant at which they revealed their essential self, and onlookers were unashamedly interested in it.

I can never think of the deaths of those I knew and loved, even those who were very old, without some small recurrent aftershock, some fresh sense of the overwhelming strangeness of their disappearance. The ritual of mourning and the ceremony of the funeral or memorial provides shapes for grief to stumble into, yet even those are designed primarily to comfort the living. What our society presently lacks – save for a few enlightened homes and hospices – is much structured means of comforting the dying, who are too often abandoned in hospital wards surprised by fear and pain.

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A miracle happened on the Piccadilly line on Tuesday evening. They broke the rules. The flew in the face of convention. They boldly went where no man or woman had gone before. They trampled on the strongest known London Underground taboo.

Three strangers had a conversation together.

Notice how carefully I choose my words.

(1) Three: Not one person having a conversation with himself. This happens quite often – through alcohol, insanity, loneliness, frustration, whatever. Not two people getting caught up in conversation. This happens now and then. Maybe I experience this a bit more often because I’m a priest in a clerical collar, which gives an opening. But in this case three individual human beings, sitting on the tube, apparently normal people.

(2) Strangers: All three were strangers to each other. So this isn’t two friends plus another stranger; or three old friends who bump into each other; it’s three people who have never met before. Unless they were plants/actors? Maybe I was on Candid Camera?

(3) Had a conversation together: Not just ‘grunted’ (‘Oh for goodness sake’; ‘what are they playing at’) or ‘exchanged information’ (‘What’s the next station?’; ‘Green Park’) or ‘shared curses’ (no descriptions needed).

Someone threw in the opening gambit, the others dipped their toes in, they felt their way forward hesitantly, and then they went for it and actually talked to each other – for about ten minutes. As normal people would. About where they had been, where they were going, what they were doing. It was remarkable.

At first, being British, what did I feel? Acute embarrassment. A discomfort so deep it was beyond words or reason. I thought, ‘Oh no – they can’t do that! Don’t they know? Where is this going? How can this last?’ As if some natural order had been disturbed; a sense of foreboding. I looked away; I concentrated even more intently on what I was reading.

Then, after about two minutes, when I realised it wasn’t just a dream, I felt an almost dizzy sense of liberation, a gratitude; even a kind of awe in the face of the boundless possibilities that open up to humankind when people realise they can be normal and that they don’t have to play the games. More than an experience of the Emperor’s New Clothes; as if I had secretly believed that the train would crash and even darker things happen if we didn’t follow the rules. (Where did these rules come from? Were they given as an injection when we were seven days old? Something in the water?)

Ten minutes of conversation between three strangers. I had a small part in it, but I wasn’t one of the three main protagonists. It began, inevitably, with an enquiry about where we were; and when the second person couldn’t answer, I threw in ‘Boston Manor’ – and then sank back into my reading.

But now comes the truth. It’s all as I have said, and it was indeed miraculous. It’s certainly the first time in my 45 years that I have witnessed this. But it was the Piccadilly Line; and yes, we were travelling from west to east – in other words, we were coming from the direction of Heathrow.

So perhaps, for the social anthropologists who have been devouring this post, it wasn’t technically part of the Underground system – they will bring up some formal exemption; perhaps, because it’s almost a spur from Heathrow, it counts – in the sociology of urban space – not as a tube line but as an airport lounge; as if the category of ‘train’ or ‘tube’ was somehow suspended for the thirty minutes from Terminals 1,2 and 3 to Earls Court.

In an airport lounge, even in Britain, you are allowed to talk to strangers, even to two or three at the same time; as long as you amble in nonchalantly, and back off at the merest hint of disinterest or disdain. And yes, I admit it, the conversation was about where they had been (on their travels) and where they were going. Or in this case, where they had not been (because someone had missed their plane – it’s a long story…And maybe that’s why it was allowed to develop, because it activated the sub-rule that you can break the rule and talk about recent or impending public disasters; only this wasn’t public but private, but it was felt so intensely that it took on a public dimension).

So maybe it wasn’t a miracle.

But they did talk. And they were complete strangers. And it was the tube!

And I was there to witness it! Something to tell my great nieces and nephews in years to come.

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