Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, 1931

Death of Lady Slane

Death of Lady Slane:

She could form no estimate of Deborah’s talents; that was beside the point. Achievement was good, but the spirit was better. To reckon by achievements was to make a concession to the prevailing system of the world; it was a departure from the austere, disinterested, exacting standards that Lady Slane and her kindred recognized. Yet what she said was not at all in accordance with her thoughts; she said, "Oh dear, if I hadn’t given away that fortune I could have made you independent."

Deborah laughed. She wanted advice, she said, not money. Lady Slane knew very well she did not really want advice either; she wanted only to be strengthened and supported in her resolution. Very well, if she wanted approval, she should have it. "Of course you are right, my dear," she said quietly.

They talked for a while longer, but Deborah, feeling herself folded into peace and sympathy, noticed that her great-grandmother’s mind wandered a little into some maze of confusion to which Deborah held no guiding thread. It was natural at Lady Slane’s age. At moments she appeared to be talking to herself, then recalled her wits, and with pathetic clumsiness tried to cover up the slip, rousing herself to speak eagerly of the girl’s future, not of some event which had gone wrong in the distant past. Deborah was too profoundly lulled and happy to wonder much what that event could be. This hour of union with the old woman soothed her like music, like cords lightly touched in the evening, with the shadows closing and the moths bruising beyond an open window. She leaned against the old woman’s knee as a support, a prop, drowned, enfolded, in warmth, dimness, and sold harmonious sounds. The hurly-burly receded; the clangour was stilled; her grandfather and her great-aunt Carrie lost their angular importance and shriveled to little gesticulating puppets with parchment faces and silly waving hands; other values rose up like great archangels in the room, and towered and spread their wings. Inexplicable association floated into Deborah’s mind; she remembered how once she had seen a young woman in a white dress leading a white borzoi across the darkness of a southern port. This physical and mental contact with her great-grandmother — so far removed in years, so closely attuned in spirit — stripped off the coverings from the small treasure of short experience that she had jealously stored away. She caught herself wondering whether she could afterwards recapture the incantation of this hour sufficiently to render it into terms of music. Her desire to render an experience in terms of music transcended even her interest in her great-grandmother as a human being; a form of egoism which she knew her great-grandmother would neither resent nor misunderstand. The impulse which had led her to her great-grandmother was a right impulse. The sense of enveloping music proved that.

On some remote piano the chords were struck, and they were chords which had no meaning, no existence, in the world inhabited by her grandfather and her great-aunt Carrie; but in her great-grandmother’s world they had their value and their significance. But she must not tire her great-grandmother, thought Deborah, suddenly realizing that the old voice had ceased its maunderings and that the spell of an hour was broke. Her great-grandmother was asleep. Her chin had fallen forward on to the laces at her breast. Her lovely hands were limp in their repose. As Deborah rose silently, and silently let herself out into the street, being careful not to slam the door behind her, the chords of her imagination died away.

Genoux, bringing in the tray an hour later, announcing "Miladi est servie," altered her formula to a sudden, "Mon Dieu, mais qu’est-ce que c’est ca — Miladi est morte."

"It was to be expected, " said Carrie, mopping her eyes as she had not mopped them over the death of her father; "it was to be expected, Mr. Bucktrout. Yet it comes as a shock. My poor mother was such an exceptional woman, as you know — though I’m sure I don’t see how you should have known it, for she was, of course, only your tenant. A correspondent in The Times described her this morning as a rare spirit. Just what I always said myself: a rare spirit." Carrie had forgotten the many other things she had said. "A little difficult to manage sometimes," she added, stung by a sudden thought of FitzGeorge’s fortune; "unpractical to a degree, but practical things are not the only things that count, are they, Mr. Bucktrout?" The Times had said that too. "My poor mother had a beautiful nature, I don’t say that I should always have acted myself as she sometimes acted. Her motives were sometimes a little difficult to follow. Quixotic, you know, and — shall we say? — injudicious. Besides, she could be very stubborn. There were times when she could not be guided, which was unfortunate, considering how unpractical she was. We should all be in a very different position now had she been willing to listen to us. However, it’s no good crying over spilt milk, is it?" said Carrie, giving Mr. Bucktrout what was meant to be a brave smile.

Mr. Bucktrout made no answer. He disliked Carrie. He wondered how anyone so hard and so hypocritical could be the daughter of someone so sensitive and so honest as his old friend. He was determined to reveal to Carrie by no word or look how deeply he felt the loss of Lady Slane.

"There is a man downstairs who can take the measurement for the coffin, should you wish, " he said.

Carrie stared. So they had been right about this Mr. Bucktrout: a heartless old man, lacking the decency to find one suitable phrase about poor Mother; Carrie herself had been generous enough to repeat those words about the rare spirit; really, on the whole, she considered her little oration over her mother to be a very generous tribute, when one remembers the tricks her mother had played on them all. She had felt extremely righteous as she pronounced it, and according to her code Mr. Bucktrout ought to have said something graceful in reply. No doubt he had expected to pull some plums out of the pudding himself, and had been embittered by his failure. The thought of the old shark’s discomfiture was Carrie’s great consolation. Mr. Bucktrout was just the sort of man who tried to hook an unsuspecting old lady. And now, full of revengefulness, he fell back on bringing a man to make the coffin.

"My brother, Lord Slane, will be here shortly to make all necessary arrangements, " she replied haughtily.

Mr. Gosheron, however, was already at the door. He came in tilting his bowler hat, but whether he tilted it towards the silent presence of Lady Slane in her bed, or towards Carrie standing at the foot, was questionable. Mr. Gosheron in his capacity as an undertaker was well accustomed to death; still his feeling for Lady Slane had always been much warmer than for a mere client. He had already tried to give some private expression to his emotion by determining to sacrifice his most treasured piece of wood as the lid for the coffin.

"Her ladyship makes a lovely corpse," he said to Mr. Bucktrout.

They both ignored Carrie.

"Lovely in life, lovely in death, is what I always say," said Mr Gosheron. "It’s astonishing, the beauty that death brings out. My old grandfather told me that, who was in the same line of business, and for fifty years I’ve watched to see if his words were true. ‘Beauty in life,’ he used to say, ‘may come from good dressing and what-not, but for beauty in death you have to fall back on character.’ Now look at her ladyship, Mr. Bucktrout. Is it true, or isn’t it? To tell you the truth," he added confidentially, "if I want to size a person up, I look at them and picture them dead. That always gives it away, especially as they don’t know you’re doing it. The first time I ever set eyes on her ladyship, I said, yes, she’ll do; and now that I see her as I pictured her then I still say it. She wasn’t never but half in this world, anyhow."

"No, she wasn’t, " said Mr. Bucktrout, who now that Mr. Gosheron had arrived, was willing to talk about Lady Slane, "and she never came to terms with it either. She had the best that it could give her — all the things she didn’t want. She considered the lilies of the field, Mr. Gosheron."

"She did, Mr. Bucktrout; many a phrase out of the Bible have applied to her ladyship. But people will stand things in the Bible that they won’t stand in common life. They don’t seem to see the sense of it when they meet it in their own homes, although they’ll put on a reverent face when they hear it read out from a lectern.

Oh goodness, thought Carrie, will these two old men never stop talking across Mother like a Greek chorus? She had arrived in Hampstead in a determined frame of mind: she would be generous, she would be forgiving — and some genuine emotion had come to her aid — but now her self-possession cracked and her ill-temper and grievances came boiling up. This agent and this undertaker, who talked so securely and so sagaciously, what could they know about her mother?

"Perhaps," she snapped, "you had better leave my mother’s funeral oration to be pronounced by one of her own family."

Mr. Bucktrout and Mr. Gosheron both turned gravely towards her. She saw them suddenly as detached figures; figures of fun certainly, yet also figures of justice. Their eyes stripped away the protection of her decent hypocrisy. She felt that they judged her; that Mr. Gosheron, according to his use and principle, was imagining her as a corpse; was narrowing his eyes to help the effort of his imagination; was laying her out upon a bed, examining her without the defenses she could no longer control. That phrase about the rare spirit shriveled to a cinder.

Mr. Bucktrout and Mr. Gosheron were in league with her mother, and no phrases could cover up the truth from such an alliance.

"In the presence of death," she said to Mr. Gosheron, taking refuge in a last convention, "you might at least take off your hat."

The End




Adrienne Nater, 2008

©© 2008 Adrienne Nater. All rights reserved.