You never forget your first corpse, do you? Cold, visceral, mute, lying there immune from the world and its cares. But, for many people in Britain, seeing a dead body has become a rare spectacle – something that many of us may never see at all. Given that we will all one day die, this aversion to death – a subject which most of us don’t even like to talk about – is bizarre.
In the Iliad, King Priam longs for the ‘heart-comforting embrace of my dead son Hector in my arms’, but the English way of death has become ever more removed from the corpse itself. Direct cremations, where the deceased is shipped straight from the hospital mortuary to an unattended crematorium burning, have risen from three to eighteen per cent of all deaths in the last three years, according to a ‘cost-of-dying report’ from SunLife insurance.
The rise in such cremations reflects an ever-greater distancing in the English funereal tradition from the remains of the deceased – once the very heart of Christian belief in the risen body of Jesus.
There’s another troubling issue with the English approach to death: over the last 20 years, the lapse of time between death and cremation, or burial, has lengthened, in some cases by up to six weeks. Sometimes this delay is voluntary, with burials fitting around the availability of relatives. But often, the hold-ups are not: instead, delays are effectively forced on mourning relatives by coroners’ bureaucracy and the self-interest of the funeral trade.
It doesn’t have to be this way: in France, the law states that a funeral must take place within six days of a death.