Caressing the marble and stone

Mors Britiannica: Lifestyle and Death-style in Britain Today, Douglas Davies, OUP, 9780199644971.

Mors Britannica

In our quest for life we often shut out the certainty that death is part of the process and we leave the processing of death to professionals. At the same time because we want to plant our livingstamp on every element of existence and to believe that we have control over our mortality – where it will take place, how it will be celebrated and what memorials might bookmark our brief flaming on this seething planet – we individuate the rites and resting places as just another element in the consumerist circus.

As its title suggests, Douglas J. Davies’ magisterial Mors Britannica: Lifestyle and Death-style in Britain Today, grasps these twin themes of vitality and mortality and eviscerates them to pick open how our attitude towards and behaviour around death can inform our understanding of the way we view life. It is an endlessly illuminating and utterly compelling work. The scholarly idiom may not appeal to all and its technical language is at times deliciously dense to the edge of opacity. But it is never tedious, and the in-depth, lively discussion of surveys and statistics from a wide variety of sources gives prescient insight into evolving trends in belief, funerary rites, secularization, individualization and much more.

One of its major themes is the rise of the NHS as the institution which shepherds most of us from birth to death. We see how it is beginning to take seriously its spiritual potency, struggling with the conflicting values of an organization whose very nature is predicated on preserving life but one which confronts death at every turn, thus demanding end-of-life care that is truly sensitive to patients’ spiritual needs and concerns.

Other pertinent and pressing issues discussed include the trend in the rise of cremation which has led to ashes becoming objects of possession to be dealt with in evermore individualistic ways. The loosening of the established Church’s grip on funeral rites is considered at length, with particular treatment of the burgeoning fashion for woodland burial grounds, often on unconsecrated land, in private hands and free from the tight regulation and protection of either church or council plots. Elsewhere, Davies scrutinizes military memorialisation as a new invented rite and the relatively recent phenomenon of an openly emotional collective response to celebrity deaths – Princess Diana and Lady Thatcher in particular.

While his observational and statistical study is not conducive to an emotional exploration of private pain, Davies does allude to the value many have found in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief model, even though academic studies have shown it to be inadequate. Road side memorials are discussed, not as shrines, which are explicitly religious in their deliberate construction but as instant outpourings of grief needing to be both rooted in a physical spot and be marked by a physical offering – flowers, soft toys, sports club scarves. Personally, I find these overt heart-on-sleeve outpourings of emotion to be grubby and regrettable, an ugly breakdown of the much touted English reserve. It is one thing if such folk rites help people grow through their grief, but too often these days the trend seems to be more towards keeping the deceased with us, keeping them in a limbo of not-alive-but-not-departedness. The example of fully charged mobile phones being placed in the coffin for burial (not cremation!) is more than a nod back to the Victorian fear of being buried alive, it is so that the living still have a way of communicating with their deceased loved ones. Social media is also being used to keep the dead undead, with Facebook and Twitter accounts for deceased people continuing to attract comments long after death. There is also the rising trend to expunge the word ‘dead’ from the vocabulary of funerals. Even funeral directors talk of the client as having ‘passed’ as if this is the most respectful way of dealing with death. Our attitude to mortality and vitality is becoming strangely twisted – we are confronted with death every day in explicit detail via the news media, the games we play, the television we watch and yet at the same time we are shrinking further and further away from reality of death as the one inevitable within our own lives.

Mors Britannica is an utterly absorbing and valuable book which should be required reading for all clergy, funeral directors and those working with the dying and the bereaved. The Reformation expunged the deceased from the funeral service and turned it into a reminder to the living of their own sinfulness and mortality. Mors Britannica reminds us that contemporary society is in the process of deleting death itself from funeral rites and turning the whole process of grief away from a corporate coming to terms with corporeal finitude and into another level on the quest for individual identity and immortality.

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