Can words do the dead justice?

Ann Wroe in More Intelligent Life:

Casual readers of obituaries or listeners to eulogies often instinctively focus on the odder bits. Life, after all, is elemental, quicksilver, strange; it isn’t found in a solemn list of doings and accomplishments, lists of schools attended or prizes won. People like to know about the quirks of the individual who has gone – the jam-jar collection, the clashing clothes, the unwise taste for speed. They want to laugh in the face of death and rejoice in the richness of life. At the same time death, being surrounded by grief, lays on its cold hand and demands respect. How, then, to memorialise the departed?

The more public the forum, the more treacherous the minefield. Those useful mourning-rites of the Victorians – black armbands, black ribbons tied on door-knockers, black-edged announcement cards – have more or less vanished now, together with their shared view of what death was. Yet, in our nervousness, we still fall back on the formulas we know. In particular, we tend to keep a stiff-collar formality in the words we use. No letter is harder to write than one of condolence. Every week my local paper runs a half-page of black-rimmed death notices in which someone from a family has dutifully struggled to write a poem about love and loss. They are awkward, poignant and truly heartfelt; most use similar phrases about the grieving left behind. The loud message of these little boxes is that words must be written, but they fail. Most obviously, they do not last. And it seems that something should. The physical presence we knew in the world has to be marked with an object that is solid and individual – most simply a stone, like the cairns of achievement on top of hills we have climbed. The powerful had such markers, from the turfed tumuli of ancient warriors, crammed with daggers and warhorses, to the chest-tombs and weeping-angel memorials of the Victorians. Yet for centuries the poor were buried unmarked around their worship-places, higgledy-piggledy and one above the other until the churchyards rose like green cushions. The dead had left the world, but remained in it: part of the community, part of the natural scene.

More here.