I do not remember much of Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel “The Loved One,”. To those who know me this is not news. First I read the book over sixty years ago. Secondly most who know me, know as someone who regularly misuses names. “Howard would you hold this please.” When the name I should have used was, Frank – who was working with me. It is a family thing to mix names I say. That is because Grandma alway did it. “Bruce, Ian, Paul she would say until she arrived at the name she needed. Ron.”
As an adolescent the plot of the book didn’t resonate with me as did the explanation of what happened to the bodies that entered “Whispering Glades”, the funeral home. The manner in which the dead were prepared for everlasting life as beautiful specimens of themselves as possible has especially remained forever with me. The notion of the dead being falsely preserved seemed strange when we never saw the dead.
What happens in America, or in your pcorner of the world is bound to be different when it comes to loving your deceased. Here, first, is a personal recollection of my experiences.
It was only, many years later when I joined the big Vagg clan I came face to face with my first corpse. In those far off days it was a family practice for the body to reverently reside in the parlour of the family home in the days before the funeral. Prayers were recited in the room, and the body lay in an open coffin. After prayers, visitors would spend a few minutes in contemplation with the deceased. A day or two later a mass was said and the body committed to the earth.
As the years rolled by the ceremony changed. The body remained in the funeral director’s care until it was required at the church. The body arrived at the church in a closed coffin. Nearly always it remained that way and people lost touch with the sight of a cadaver. Death was left to the professionals and the only members of the congregation who did have a viewing were the immediate family – if that was their wish. Otherwise no one did.
Almost as invisibly funerals have shifted further to become products of big business. Once they were exclusively church affairs – somewhere in the past couple of decades the church has given way to the funeral chapel. Just as the grave has given way to the invisible cremation. In the past in my circle, the coffin left after the ceremony of the church for the graveyard. Family and friends gathered around the grave and after prayers the body was committed to the ground and buried. Hundreds of generations of my ancestors rest where they were placed just like this. Now, in a funeral home a curtain is closed and the casket is whisked away to the crematorium for cremation.
Funerals have become a commercial business. The country’s largest business in Australia is Invocare. This is an American conglomerate with literally dozens of once familiar local business names. (I am cynical about them if I am honest. I do not think death is a product to be exploited by business). Here I recite some of the practices business has been known to exploit – without reference to any particular model.
One company is know to ship multiple caskets to the cheapest under-utilised crematorium even if they are shipped hundreds of kilometres. Once processed the ashes are redistributed to the director’s place of choice giving the funeral director another chance to benefit from the grieving family.
The operators are ruthless profiteers, clipping the ticket of the grieving relatives: for celebrants, cars, flowers, music, caskets ( you wouldn’t want your dad to be sent off in a cardboard box so if you step inside we can show you a gold, bronze or an aluminium casket. If this is beyond your means – (why would it be. – Dad left you some money didn’t he?) we have Mahogany, Blackwood – with a lovely grain, Pine, or (heaven forbid) processed Craftwood. (The slick-sell can last for hours, but don’t worry, We will look after your Dad as if he was our own.
The truth is, over the years we have removed death from the process of life. We don’t even say Dad has died. We lie and refer to him as “In a better place.” “Passed”. Crudely you might read he is Deceased, because we seem to prefer euphemisms to Dead.
People live. People die. I will die. That is the nature of things. In 2020 we have all become aware death happens. It happens suddenly and without warning in a pandemic, and we do not like it. The media is consumed by it. Governments around the world are hiding behind the words of the epidemiology teams that project if we do not do this: close businesses, stop movement, limit traffic, bring in lockdowns, our hospitals will become overcrowded and more people will die.
People have always died. For democracy a dying constituent is no good. So leaders have given way to science and created fear in their communities. Yet the virus kills. Bacteria kills. Stupidly viruses and bacteria spend their whole lives trying to kill their hosts. Just as we people stupidly over consume and kill our planet. Yet when it comes to the planet we ignore science and kill it anyway.
Grim isn’t it? So too are the predictions of philosopher Byung-Chun Han who posits COVID -19 is probably not a good omen for Europe and the USA. “The virus is a physical test. Asian countries, which think little of liberalism, got a grip on the pandemic quite early.” He continued , “The virus is a mirror. It shows what society we live in.”
In his opinion, COVID – 19 shows we live in a second class society because COVID- 19 is not conducive to democracy. It has left the poor to their own devices. We have inadequate hospitals for them. “The pandemic is therefore not only a medical problem, but also a social one.”
“Faced with the shock of the pandemic, the west will be forced to give up liberal principles” and choose strong autocratic leaders.
He even observes it has killed religion. (People) “ totally sacrifice faith for survival. Everyone is listening to virologists who have absolute sovereignty of interpretation. In the face of the virus religious belief generates into farce.” Further he observes, “And our Pope Francis? St Francis has hugged lepers.” We are left to assume Pope Francis has to be cosseted to remain safe.
He is asked a question on everyone’s lips, “Is COVID – 19 a mortal wound for globalisation ?”
In his answer he observes, “We no longer do business for people, but for capital.” He continues, “We freely exploit ourselves in the belief we are fulfilling ourselves. But in reality we are servants.”
Now, Byung-Chun Han suggests the winner from the Pandemic is more likely to be China than is to be the West. It already seems apparent, the virus is forcing people to re-examine the neo-liberal ethos forced upon us for the last forty years. Small government has been a bane on our development by demolishing civic organisations in the belief life will be better if more is left to commercial operators because civil servants cannot work as efficiently. Clearly it did and it can again.
Tony Abbot. (Oh it hurts to write the name of our former prime minister but there – I have). Tony Abbot suggested the world had gone mad locking down business when we should just let the virus rip. Sure the elderly will die, he said, but the pain caused to the economy when they live an extra month or year is too expensive to the economy.
These paraphrased words are similar to the arguments used by Byung-Chun Han in his treatise. The cost of saving the elderly is extravagant when their lives are so costly. (My words are not exactly his). The average life expectation in Germany (he lives in Germany) is 80.5 and the average age of the German Covid-19 cases is 80 or 81.
Written, as these words are, in the sunset years of my life, life is good, yet I am as uncertain as you when it will end. I do not want COVID but neither should you. This does not mean either of us should live fearfully, but was Princess Dianna fearful when she met with AIDS sufferers thirty years ago. No? I don’t think so either. We just need to wash our hands. Keep a social distance. And wear a mask.
Coronavirus Thinkers ere.com
For Byung-Chul Han Philosopher