by Peter Hitchens
A few days ago the British state quietly reached into my life and reminded me that I have exceeded my allotted span of years. I am now classified as officially old, an interesting introduction to second-class citizenship. On my seventieth birthday, it canceled my driver’s license, which I have held uninterruptedly since I passed my test long decades ago. It compelled me to apply for a new and inferior one. This will keep expiring every three years and will, I expect, become harder to regain each time, as I become ever more decrepit. And then I will expire. This was unpoetic, as intimations of mortality go. But it was also potent, causing me to think about my approaching death, when I was least expecting to.
I have always been interested in death, as well as disturbed by it. Some people think this is unhealthy and morbid. I tend to think it is normal, as death is normal. A childhood spent close to ancient parish churches and cathedrals, plus a smattering of Latin, gave me a rather old-fashioned view of it as something usual and close, in whose shadow we walked all our days. Elaborate memorials of the rich, or simple tombstones of the poor, both alike, made no attempt to hide what they were for. Many churches have tidied the messy things away now, but in those days the graves heaved in many a mouldering heap, as Thomas Gray described it in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Carvings of skulls, sometimes rather finely done, sometimes angrily crude, surmounted both. In one of my favorites a capering, rather cheerful-looking skeleton is portrayed beside the inscription “As ye are now, so once was I. As I am now, so shall you be.”
So it is surprising that I have thought so little about how I might hope to die, given the choice. Of course I also know I may not have the choice. Of the three moments when I have come closest to death, two have been on the road, where you may be hurled into eternity with almost no warning, and one was on assignment in a chaotic place. What I remember about all these is the swift withdrawal into an inner silence and powerless immobility, once I realized how bad it was.
Will it be like that again? Is there any comfort to be had or will we just face it alone and endure whatever is involved with the resources we have? Would I, a Protestant born and largely bred, welcome a priest at my side as the darkness closes in? I have seen one death, that is to say the actual moment of dying, at close quarters. It was that of a beloved aunt, a person of fierce, undiluted Protestant faith, courageous, kind, selfless and generous, yet also full of laughter and with a very light heart. She had spent her entire life as a nurse ministering to the sick and she knew she was in her final illness. While still fully conscious she had not requested or mentioned the presence of a parson. I suspected she would have disapproved of it. I had certainly not thought it my place to arrange such a thing without her permission.
Her actual death came after days of growing pain eased by a great deal of morphine. Without warning, she appeared to wake from the apparent unconsciousness in which she had been for some hours. But she plainly did not wake to the dreary surroundings of the hospital. She woke to something else. The lines and wrinkles of many years were wiped from her face and she looked, for a moment, as young as I remembered her from my own childhood. She was also completely overcome by joy, as if at a long-awaited meeting with someone she had hoped to meet for many long years. And then she was dead and her face was once again old as well as being wholly empty, as it had never been before. In my memory the room is full of light, and silent, though it cannot have been. I know all the reductionist explanations, and you may accept them if you wish. I never will.
And, as I am not at all like my aunt, and gravely doubt my qualifications for either the Catholic or the Protestant routes to the better regions of eternity, perhaps I should be wise if, like Lord Marchmain at the end of Brideshead Revisited, I have some sort of ghostly comfort at hand at the end. The lovely and very ancient prayer “God be in my head” concludes with the petition “God be at mine end, and at my departing.” The Anglican Prayer Book of 1662, sternly Calvinist in most respects, is full of little escapes and compromises if you know where to look. So it contains forms of prayer for the Visitation of the Sick and for a Communion of the Sick, which might quite easily be mistaken by a layman for forms of extreme unction.
I have had all these thoughts since the denial of extreme unction to Sir David Amess, a British Member of Parliament and a devout member of the Roman Catholic Church, who was recently killed in a terrible incident, which English law rightly forbids me from discussing here lest a trial is prejudiced. But what I can discuss is the refusal of the police, who were at the scene, to let a priest go to his side. Whether the priest, who was nearby and who hurried to the place, would have been in time, I have no idea. But what I do know is that the authorities issued a wooden-headed explanation of their action that rendered me almost speechless with fury when I heard it. It was not even hostile to religion. It was crudely, insultingly indifferent to its claims. The priest, it was alleged, might have in some way disrupted the crime scene and the investigation. Well, so he might, I suppose, even though after much searching I could find no case where this had ever happened, anywhere. Nor could I find anyone who could explain exactly how this danger would have manifested itself. But in any case, so what? If a man believes he has an immortal soul, there simply is no more important thing than the saving of it. Rigidly Protestant Britain had welcomed Roman Catholic priests as military chaplains in the First World War, and many Anglicans, notably Robert Graves in his memoir Goodbye to All That, were moved by their dedication and courage under fire, in the work of saving souls.
Even if you do not yourself believe that someone has such a soul, in a free society you have to accept that this is what others think, and act accordingly. Yet England is now a country that has forgotten it was once free, and where the authorities place bureaucratic convenience far above the immortal soul, and a surprising number of people do not care. Increasingly I wonder what the coronation of our next monarch will have to be like, if (as it must) it reflects the turning away from Christianity of our whole society since the last such ceremony nearly seventy years ago. It is when you have to renew things that you find out just how much has changed since you first obtained them.
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