None of my students had even heard of ‘death masks’, let alone seen one. I invited them to
However, it’s possible this visit to Death elicited the following story from one of my students.
My student and her husband had purchased a new house. Cleaning and renovations eventually took them to the back loft area, which was piled high with decades of accumulated detritus from a long life.
Getting ladder and flashlight her husband climbed to see what it was.
It was the end of a number of knotted bed sheets.
Somehow she had acquired the chill
Of worldliness; I missed the thrill
Of eager radiance she had
When we were comrades, free and glad.
Some volatile and subtle trace
Of soul had vanished from her face,
Leaving the brilliancy that springs
From polished and enamelled things.
The beauty of the lamp still shone
With lustre, but the flame was gone.
Their world was ending.
They knew that from the toll of the church bells. They knew that from the stink of death. They knew that from the carts of seeping corpses being pushed through the streets. It was The Terrible Pox.
The Black Death.
Heat made the stink worse. The screams themselves became more terrible in the summer heat. Screams caused by the boils, and the black blood flowing through veins. The fetid vapours rose, and the drivers of the Death Carts puked from the stench.
There was nowhere to go, and no one to help. The monarch, the nobles, the bishops, and the wealthy, all fled to the country. They locked themselves into grand castles, yet they still died. The doctors, who knew no remedy, also died from their futile efforts.
Neither the poor nor the rich, the young nor the old, women nor men, were spared. They screamed and clawed to their death, and rats fed from their bloated bodies.
Towns and villages became armed camps. Strangers were turned back at the outer limits. Those suspected of the Plague were locked in their homes, sometimes to be burned. People were clubbed, a few were shot, many were buried before they were dead. There was no sorrow, and no mercy shown to any who were a threat.
The living were frantic to prove they still had life.
They ate and drank and danced and fucked as often as their bodies would allow. They were afraid to sleep, so terrified of that fake death with the real all around. They beat on drums, rang the bells frantically, shouted and sang and swore and cried. They rode horses wildly through the streets, until the beasts fell from exhaustion. They pillaged the vacant homes of the rich, looted stores and wine shops, and paraded in the jewels and fine clothes they had stolen. Women and girls and boys were raped and sodomised by strangers and kinfolk alike.
They did anything for action, anything to prove they were different from the rotting corpses in the carts, which trundled through the streets toward mass graves. They played all the more, and when some fell slavering in their midst, they were kicked into the gutters and forgotten.
It was a time for witches and charlatans. People would believe anything, take any quackish product, if it promised to save their lives. Ghosts walked the land while crops rotted from neglect. It was the end of the world for those who knew no better.
An excerpt from my novel More Famous Than The Queen. My main character – so famous he is just known by initials – is at the funeral of Princess Diana.
The casket reaches the Sacrarium. ST leaves his thoughts behind to follow the service, listen to the words, and sing along with the hymns.
Although he has no fondness for opera and operatic song, ST finds the soprano’s voice pleasant, and drifts along with the Latin text: “Dies illa, dias irae … Day of wrath, day of calamity and woe.” He finds Elton John’s presentation bizarre yet sincere.
The rest of the service proceeds around him, but he only stands and sits by following the motion and noise of those fore and aft. Perhaps it is his deficient attention span, perhaps it is jet lag (he did not get any rest yesterday), but, much as he did as a child on Sunday, ST slips into a revere.
He wonders where Diana is.
If the whole context of this service is correct, and her Spirit Everlasting is afloat in some other world, does she have the slightest interest in these proceedings? Do you care what is on the plate after you have eaten the meal?
Is it – as he hopes – an all new wonderful adventure?
ST is returned to the present by the familiar words of The Lord’s Prayer. He is actually reciting “Give us this day our daily bread” before he realizes what he is doing.
Stopped in place and time.
He could be a child again (perhaps he is) wondering what `trespasses’ are. He could be the aware young man, wondering why God would have a penchant to lead us into temptation. And he could be as he now is, wondering if this was the only way for a troubled young woman to be delivered from evil.
ST is fully attentive to the final hymn, and The Commendation of the Dead to the Lord.
He suspects it is an all-or-nothing package: that Diana and Jesus and God are present and appreciative to what is happening around him; or that he and everyone else are just singing and praying to the empty rafters. He fears his faith has skidded to the unstable foundation of hope.
The cortege prepares to leave the Abbey. Although the choir sings as the procession slowly moves to the west end of the church, it is really silence which hangs over this vast array of people. Again the casket with its ruptured body wend their way down the aisle, the flower arrangement an almost dull glow in this final, sombre setting.
“Weeping at the grave creates the song.”
Or so the song goes.
Then there is the final minute.
The minute of silence.
Observed by the Nation.
Observed by ST.
Observed -perhaps- as a minute’s pause in the enormous expanse of Eternity by a dead princess.
A short story:
The old Rabbi moved slightly on his bed, and the young man raced over.
The old Rabbi opened his eyes, showing the cast of death which had almost consumed him. “Ka … ” he groaned.
The young man had been told the dying Rabbi would never regain his senses, and he did not know what to do. He was scared, almost horrified, but he leaned closer.
“What is it? What do you want?”
The old Rabbi struggled for breath. “Ka … Kaf …”
The young man gazed at the face, saw its pallid features and the clouded eyes. He touched a shrunken cheek, raised his voice to a shout. “What is it? What can I do?” He could hear wheezing, the struggle for air. He put his ear directly over the gaping mouth.
“Ka … Ka …” One last ragged breath, a low hollow whisper. “Kafka died for your sins.”