At The End Of The Only Life You Believe In

Jonathan Rée notices the rise of funeral ceremonies tailored to self-described rationalists and humanists:

The decline of hardline rationalism about bereavement may be part of a global social trend towards blubbering sentimentality and public exhibitions of grief: Princess Diana and all that. But there could be something more serious behind it too: a suspicion that the no-nonsense approach to death advocated by pure-minded atheists bears a horrible resemblance to the attitudes that lie behind the great political crimes of the 20th century – Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massified deaths of two world wars, the millions discarded as obstacles to progress in the Soviet Union and China, and of course the Nazi death camps.

He finds an all-too-human reason supporting the trend:

Love has always been the main issue in our dealings with the dead; and love is nothing if not an attitude of one physical being towards another. The 17th-century poet John Donne, in an ingenious poem called “A Valediction, forbidding mourning”, tried to argue that a love that depends on the apprehension of another person’s body – on “eyes, lips and hands” – is the province of “dull sublunary lovers”, unlike the refined spiritual love – “like gold to aery thinnesse beat” – that dwells wholly in the mind. But Donne can never have convinced himself, let alone anyone else.

To love someone is to treasure the hint of a smile, the strength of a hand, the set of a jaw, the plant of a foot or the curl of a lock of hair. And one of the disconcerting things about death is that it does not immediately annihilate these charms, as we might expect and even hope: more than a trace of them lingers in the cold corpse. A fuss about a trifle, of course. Or perhaps not. It is easy to mock the foibles of others; rather harder to face up to our own.