For whom the bell tolls

The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead, by Carl Watkins, The Bodley Head, RRP£20, 318 pages

For the Victorians, death was a release from earthly cares, as well as an occasion for social display. The lavishly draped marble urns and keening angels of Victorian cemeteries were a way to express one’s wealth as well as the mystery of the end of life.

These Victorian Valhallas present a now-vanished view of death. We are unable to draw comfort from their mortuary symbolism of yew, cypress and oak (symbols respectively of sorrow, despair and hospitality). Our dwindling belief in the afterlife – the consolation that we might ever join our loved ones – has taken the life out of funerals. There has been a shift of prudery, one might say, from sex to death. Death has become our last, most pervasive taboo.

The Undiscovered Country, an absorbing history of attitudes to death and dying in Britain from the Middle Ages to Edwardian times, is a reminder that the undertaker, whatever the innovations of medicine, awaits us all. Yet, as the Cambridge historian Carl Watkins argues, death no longer occupies an important place in the collective sensibility. Baroque representations of death as a scythe-wielding skeleton are viewed as part of an obsolete cult of mortality. Death has been banished, instead, to the private space of the hospital – and made secretive.

In pages of vivid prose, Watkins journeys through the British Isles in search of surviving mortuary customs and ritual. He writes knowledgeably on medieval beliefs in purgatory, and of the “commonplace customs” that persisted into Victorian times: “Windows were opened to let the soul loose. Clocks were stopped. Mirrors were covered or turned to the wall.” All the signs of everyday life had to be suspended, Watkins writes, “lest they draw the dead back into the world”.

British attitudes to death had changed definitively with the Reformation; the architect of King Henry VIII’s reforms, the statesman-lawyer Thomas Cromwell, sought to uproot medieval beliefs in hellfire, purgatory and other papistical “abominations”.

Nevertheless, says Watkins, reinvigorated cults linked with the Virgin Mary and the saints gave the lie to claims that the Reformation was sweeping all before it. Queen Elizabeth I, for all her defence of the Tudor realm and its anti-Catholic cause, was known to keep a crucifix and church candles in her bedside cabinet.

A belief in ghosts has endured down the centuries, and in a brilliant chapter, Watkins looks at the rise of the spiritualist movement. A hybrid of Rosicrucian mysticism and low-church gloom, spiritualism flourished in Britain amid the bereavements of the first world war. Sir Oliver Lodge, professor of physics at Liverpool University, brought comfort to many other bereaved parents when he published a bestselling book of his son’s wartime letters and then his dispatches from the afterlife (Raymond was killed in 1915), which were communicated to his parents at spiritualist sittings: “There were creature comforts in the hereafter, spirits in ‘Summerland’ were furnished with whisky and cigars. There was work there, too, ‘fifty times more interesting than on the earth plane’.”

Watkins concludes by noting that many in modern Britain still hold on to “the flotsam and jetsam of Christianity; even if they do not ostensibly ‘believe’, they still cling to planks that remain after the shipwreck of faith.”

The framework of belief still provides an answer to the near-universal “emotional need for a narrative about the dead”. In addition, there are many in modern Britain who still call themselves spiritualists – and more who believe in ghosts and immortality as a fact. Watkins cites figures that show “as many as four in ten believe in ghosts and around half hold that there is some kind of afterlife, a figure seemingly quite stable since the second world war.”

The Undiscovered Country, superbly written, shows how the meaning of life is still everywhere connected to what it means to die. Anyone feeling a bit like death should read it – and feel revivified.

Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi’ (Vintage)

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