IN MY GRANDPARENTS’ home village in North Yorkshire there was (and I suspect there still is), laid up in the north aisle of the parish church, a pauper’s coffin. ‘Coffin’ is perhaps too grand a description for a contraption which showed every sign of having been cobbled together by a careless village carpenter from some left over deal boards and wheels of a small barrow or cart.
This rough box-on-wheels had a hinged flap at one end, and a hinged lid. The modus operandi was simple. The cart was taken to the home of the deceased, where the body, wrapped in its winding sheet, was placed into the box through the hinged lid. When the service was over it slid out of the box, through the hinged side, into the waiting grave. My grandfather confidently asserted that he had seen the coffin in regular use until the First World War, and even occasionally thereafter.
In a world of tin baths, earth privies and bedroom washstands such a homely disposal of the dead, accompanied as it was by the sonorous words of Dr Cranmer’s Service, intoned in the familiar voice of the village parson, seemed in no way disrespectful. How very far we have come!
The Chief Executive of Bedford Hospital is today a sadder and a wiser man. Faced with a crisis in stowing bodies preparatory to their removal from his premises for burial, he took the sensible and obvious decision to lay them out in the hospital chapel. What, you will ask, could be more natural? But the chief executive was wrong. Unknowingly, perhaps, he had transgressed one of the burgeoning taboos of a secular age. Accused of disrespect to the remains of the dear departed dead (whose sanctity is now taken to be so great that it can be honoured only by a hi-tech refrigerator and a company of ‘funeral directors’ owned by an American conglomerate) he was forced to resign.
This heartless persecution of an otherwise blameless official takes Grundyism to new heights of absurdity. What are our bodies, then, that they cannot be confidently consigned to the Almighty?
But ours is no longer (not altogether regrettably) the age of bedroom washstands, earth privies and tin baths. It is, regretfully, the age of vanitory units, sanitary wipes and ph5; the age of breast implants, nipple piercing and face-lifts. As a society loses its faith in everlasting life, it appears simultaneously to lose its grip on reality. What can anyone mean by respect for the body, living or dead, when foetuses are routinely ripped from their mothers at public expense, and breast implants are thought to be a suitable birthday present for a sixteen year old girl?
Real respect for the body is not expressed by the muffled insincerities and sanitary taboos of the mortuary industry (how I love the raucous earthiness of a decent West Indian funeral, where rum is the only disinfectant and ‘respect’ takes the form of a six piece jazz band!). It is voiced by the patient and diligent defence of human dignity at both the extremities of life.
Three cheers then, for that marvellously united phalanx of religious leaders from Cormac Murphy O’Conor, through Jonathan Sacks to Indarjit Singh who have written to members of the House of Lords to express opposition to human cloning. Has there ever, in the history of our nation been such a unanimity among the leaders of all faiths? It should gladden the heart even of the Prince of Wales.
But not apparently Tony Blair. No one will be surprised, his record on such matters being what it is, that the letter arose from a sense of frustration, when the leaders of the Roman Catholic Anglican, Free Church, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities were four times refused an interview with the Prime Minister.
Nor will Anglicans be at all surprised that the Bishop of Oxford, and Chairman of the General Synod’s Board for Social Responsibility, the Rt Revd Richard Harries, was not a signatory of the letter, but rather of what might be described as a minority report, together with both supporters and opponents of the Bill.
In an official statement a spokesperson for Brave New Labour was reported as saying: ‘The issue at question is one on which the House of Commons has already expressed itself. It would be particularly difficult to postpone a parliamentary decision by remitting discussion to a select committee’.
So the campaign to ‘modernize’ the nation’s morality is to be subsumed into the battle royal between Lords and Commons, which can only end in the Lords’ demise.
It was all to be expected, of course. In a nation which is developing new superstitions at the same rapid rate that it is abandoning reasoned Judaeo-Christian morality for an opportunistic utilitarianism, Brave New Labour has always mouthed the popular superstitions and ditched the morality.
It will be no comfort to the former Chief Executive of Bedford Hospital. but this is an age which can find it in its conscience to destroy and plunder the human body, at same time as it gives it grotesque cosmetic attention and demands for it a contrived and phoney respect.
Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark