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Date: 26/07/2014
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The Disneyfication of Death

Is a graveyard a public amenity or an arena of self-expression? An Essex council recently ordered grieving families to remove ‘decorations’ from the tombs of their dead children. ‘One councillor claimed that it looked like Poundland,’ said Anne Lee, who was asked to remove the wind chimes from her daughter’s grave. ‘But we think they’re beautiful.’

Is a council a better judge of what is right and fitting in funerary monuments than at least some of the citizenry? Municipal cemeteries are among the many achievements of our Victorian forefathers. They are usually still well maintained. In many towns they are by far the best and most peaceful place to walk; and they are also highly instructive, from more than one point of view.

Recently, for example, I spent a few hours in such a cemetery in the West Country. That death has long been a subject of importance but difficulty for human beings is suggested by the number of expressions for it inscribed on tombstones in this cemetery between 1880 and 1930. Here is a non-comprehensive list (the cemetery was very large and I did not examine every tombstone):

Died, Passed away, Fell Asleep, Departed this Life, Was Called to Higher Service, At Rest, Entered into Eternal Life, Was Gently Translated, Called Home, Passed into Higher Service, Entered into the Homeland, Suddenly Fell Asleep, At Peace, Was Changed…

There is surely an embarrassment in this profusion of expressions, as if the nature of something so deeply undesirable and undesired as death could be altered into something nicer by a change in terminology. One hears in it Matthew Arnold’s long, melancholy withdrawing roar of religious belief; we struggle over words when we are uncertain what we want to say or what we mean.

My eye was caught in the cemetery by a distant area in which the subdued shades of green and grey and black natural to a cemetery suddenly burst into bright, metallic primary colours. I saw helium balloons waving in the breeze, and as I approached I heard the whirl of little plastic windmills. It was the area set aside for the tombs of children.

The death of children now seems anomalous to us, as for most of human history it was not. Edward Gibbon, for example, tells us in his Autobiography that he was the only one of seven children to have survived infancy, and even he was often expected to die. The Gibbon family was worse than average for the age, but by no means unusual. Now it seems completely against the natural order of things that a child should die before his parents, and when he does so it is therefore all the more tragic. So it is not surprising if the mourning for the death of a child should be more pronounced than in Gibbon’s day.

Yet it seemed to me that some other shift had occurred that was visible in the children’s section of this municipal cemetery. There was an extravagance and kitschiness to the commemoration of dead children that is of recent origin, and struck a false note.

In simplicity is feeling. I was much moved, for example, by a small tomb which gave the name and dates of a child who died aged three months in 1964, by the side of which had recently been placed some fresh flowers. By 1964, of course, the death of a child was already unexpected and anomalous, a tragedy rather than a natural event that, however regrettable, was normal: and this is proved by the fact that 46 years later the parents, now probably in their seventies, remember the child with grief still in their hearts. It takes very little effort of the imagination, surely, to visualise the couple at the cemetery, dignified and undemonstrative, with their small bunch of flowers. But if we move on to more recent infant deaths, we find a significant change.

There has been a Disneyfication of death, in many cases literally. Golden-yellow figures of Winnie the Pooh, always in the crude Disney version and never in the subtler and tender E.H. Shepard version, are engraved on many black shiny tombstones (the favourite national material for tombstones now, the funerary equivalent of the fitted kitchen). There are many Mickey Mice on or scattered about the tombs; there was a Mickey Mouse on the tomb of the only child with a Muslim name in the cemetery (a reassuring example of acculturation at work). Some of the tombstones are actually in the shape of teddy bears; the main literary influence on the inscribed sentiments appears to be that of Hallmark cards:

Fly where only angels sing

Or:

Our little man who was born asleep but awoke as an angel

Also now visible is a spirit of competition: he grieves most who grieves most conspicuously and leaves the most plastic detritus on and around the tomb of the departed. In this instance, there was a clear winner of the competition, at least for the time being — the relatives of a child who lived for two weeks and had now just ‘celebrated’ his first birthday. The victory was no doubt so complete because the extravagance was recent; the crown will soon enough pass to others.

There were more toys on his tomb than I received during my entire childhood (and I was not deprived), including some soft toys now rather sodden by the rain. Helium balloons, wishing the infant many happy returns, were tied all around the grave, waving in the air; there were plastic windmills; bouquets of flowers in baskets; a birthday cake with a candle; and many birthday cards, not from the parents alone. One said ‘Happy birthday little one, wish you could of been here’. Another, from a ‘friend’, claimed that not a day passed without her thinking long about ‘you, little one’.

How is it that the fraudulence of this emotionality, its sheer inauthenticity, not to say mendacity, is invisible to those who indulge in it? Here indeed is a puzzle for psychologists. I am reminded of those people who cannot see the fraudulence of American television evangelists the moment they appear on the screen. It is as if we, or at least some of us, are in the process of becoming people without inwardness, who measure their own feelings by outward manifestations only. So many teddy bears, so much grief. How and why have we become like this?

Originally published in The Spectator.

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