How you live with death

Interview by Penny Wark
The Times
Published: 19th May 2004

It is easy to observe that the British are awkward in their dealings with death. That we don’t like to talk about it, and that when faced with it we are miserably inarticulate. We lack the rituals that might help, and many of us lack the faith. But such truths do not make openness about death a straightforward option, particularly when life proves repeatedly that death can be devastating.

For this reason the novelist Sally Emerson has compiled an anthology of verse and prose that relate to death. Her choices, a mixture of classic and contemporary writing, reflect anger, grief and loss, and the comfort that can come from remembering and continuing to love. As Brian Patten puts it: “For as long as we ourselves live, holding memories in common, a man lives.” In Loving Memory will undoubtedly help people seeking readings for funerals and memorial services, and it will also, as Emerson hopes, provide solace for those struggling with grief.

“When my father-in-law died we were desperately looking for something to read which was appropriate for him,” she explains. “When you are not religious everything is more difficult. He wasn’t. He was a very sweet man and I was knocked sideways by his death. That frightened me.”

Emerson and her husband, Peter Stothard, the former Editor of The Times, now Editor of The Times Literary Supplement, chose John Masefield’s Sea- Fever for Max Stothard, who had served in the Royal Navy. “It seemed to gather him up for a moment, present who he was, his gentleness and his tenderness, and his energy,” she says.

“People tend to want to have a service in Church because of the sanctity and dignity of the church and its traditions. The language of the Bible is astounding stuff, but I think good poetry has a sense of glory too. You want something that gives you a sense of elation that this person has lived. I think that’s helpful when you’re overcome with grief.”

Her own favourite readings include a few sentences from Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in which the old doctor advises Captain Corelli to live on behalf of loved ones who have died: “This is how I live without Pelagia’s mother. I have no interest in flowers but for her I will look at a rock-rose or a lily. For her I eat aubergines, because she loved them.” Emerson also enjoys the more traditional sense of awe in Thomas Traherne’s Thanksgivings for the Body which praises God “For all the mysteries, engines, instruments, wherewith the world is/ filled, which we are able to frame and use to Thy glory.”

Emerson’s personal motive in compiling the collection was to learn to have a greater acceptance of death. She talks about her much-loved grandfather whom she can still see, his arms open to her, “as if he’s resident because he’s in my mind. There’s no sense that he no longer exists because as far as I’m concerned he is absolutely existing and the feeling I have for him is exactly the same.

“He’d been in D-Day, he’d seen bodies, and he certainly enjoyed every day afterwards. He didn’t madly acquire possessions or have any of the wrong values. I think once you have faced up to death your values are going to be much better. My generation didn’t have that exposure to death. Lots of us aren’t religious so there’s a terrible space there.

“I’m trying to get across an acceptance, a mastery, of death. Not a meek acceptance — we want Auden’s Funeral Blues, that sense of anger in ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’ — but we’ve also got to be positive about it, though I don’t think one should treat death as though it doesn’t exist.”

Inevitably, this view comes out of Emerson’s own experience. As a young woman she lost a friend in a car crash; in her twenties, when she edited the literary magazine Books and Bookmen, a colleague committed suicide as the magazine fell into financial difficulties. More recently the author Douglas Adams, a friend (with whom she’d had a well documented relationship more than 20 years ago), died suddenly, and her husband was seriously ill before making a full recovery.

“Certainly Peter’s illness made me feel that one should enjoy each day because you never know what is round the corner,” she says. “You’re fighting together and we were very positive, which seemed to be the only way forward. You go through something together and in a way it ended up giving us all a zest for life. Like so many things, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. But it clearly doesn’t make you think you ‘re going to be fine until you’re 95, which would otherwise be the underlying view.”

Such traumas have also helped Emerson to discover a sense of perspective, she believes. “Not only do I find myself living intensely in the moment and being happy, but I no longer worry or get irritated about little things, such as waiting in a queue. I don’t even have to remind myself not to be irritated. Going through the poetry for the anthology helped to consolidate that sense of proportion, that if you can handle the big issues in life, the inconsequential ones take care of themselves.”

What comes out of the poetry is a “huge sense of the glory of being around and how you should be kinder to other people”, she says. This is the kernel of her attitude to both life and death now. She views the two together, which enables her to live more positively, she says. “You’ve got to have an attitude to death. I think it’s important to prepare yourself so that when it comes to someone you love it doesn’t destroy you. It’s obviously going to be terribly tough but the only thing you can do in that positive sense is to say she lived, or he lived, she had a great time, and have the readings that can express what you’re feeling.

“It isn’t just looking for consolation, it’s looking for whatever you happened to be feeling, even if it’s quite dark. Something that expresses it makes you feel better than avoiding the subject. You obviously need to go through it and I believe that it’s easier to learn first aid before the catastrophe actually happens. I think I’m quite a passionate person and love deeply. I would never want not to do that even though I know the price to pay would be grief. I don’t think you should avoid big emotions, but you need a safety net you can go to when things get too bad. It isn’t a matter of thinking about someone else’s death. What I’m saying is that life is terrific and that the only good thing about the prospect of death is that it should make you enjoy life while you’re here. Make sure you’re doing today what you should be doing, however much you don’t want to. I think that’s a sensible way of living and not gloomy at all. If one can demote death, make it an incident in life, but recognise that life is the most important thing, then you’re mastering it.”

Compiling the book has made her feel happier, she says: “I understand all this much better by going through it in a basic and emotional way. I’ve felt much more a sense of living in the moment and consciously making sure that I look at things and note things and make sure that every day is a good day, as far as I can. This is one of the consolations: that when somebody dies, if they lived well they show you the way. Living better is a way of honouring them.”

In Loving Memory, Little, Brown, £10.99.