An Artist's View of Death
A mind-numbing state of cold is my abiding memory of Teschemakers Boarding School in Oamaru, New Zealand in the 1930s. I could not work out what was I doing there. If this was punishment, what had I done? I didn’t know; I was eight.
Our fingers protruded out of our greasy mittens like so many saveloys. Chill and damp was my boarding school for a river ran around this large estate.
But, come, it wasn’t all bad, for it was at Teschemakers that I came to appreciate theatre. In those times, the Catholic Church was still very good at that, turning death into theatre. An obscure nun’s death could be high tragedy. There was a lead up to the announcement of her release from this valley of tears. Accompanied by the rumblings of our stomachs we would be entreated to pray for the sick nun’s recovery. When this became unlikely we were entreated to pray for a miracle. When that did not eventuate we prayed for her glorious release into paradise. The choir which I was recruited into would sing that wonderful tearjerker:
“Eternal rest grant to them O Lord and May eternal light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. May they rest in peace…”
First this was sung andante and piano. Then largo and pianissimo. In the final repeat our voices lifted in triumph filling the chapel with a glorious sound. While we sang, all the other boarders formed a queue, the head prefect leading the way, moving to the side of the open coffin she bent gracefully and kissed the dead nun’s cheek. The rest of the girls, down to a five-year old, copied this action. I seem to remember this happening at least once a year. I expect the cold killed them off, if the diet didn’t. The Requiem Mass that preceded this ceremony had already elevated our minds and hearts into the realms of higher beings. We were sufficiently psyched up to dribble tears on this unknown old nun. I did not understand at the time she was a woman. I believed nuns where some other gender.
The question is: did this conditioning gift me with an acceptance of death? The answer: no. I think an earlier memory from our farm superseded any lessons I could have gained from boarding school.
The problem was that I believed, like many young children, that the creatures on the farm were my brothers and sisters. To my mind we were all in this together, finding ourselves in this incomprehensible place called earth, and finding comfort in each other’s company.
My early introduction to death happened in a barbarous style. Amidst coarse jokes and hysterical laughing. This was the headless chicken episode.
One old hen I knew very well was racing out of the hen coop with her head off. My father held her head in his hand. That taught me all I needed to know about death. What age was I? Three and a half or four? No amount of glorious music or poetic prayer could block out that brutal reality.
Nevertheless hope springs eternal when we are young. We live in the moment. Death happens to other people or when you are very old. Now it’s the new love, a mind changing gin perhaps, or a glorious sense of possibility in this poem, in this painting, in this song. Death and stuff about God don’t feature very much.
However sometimes I would find I was raving, not of course to decent believers in Christianity. Only to those hypocritical people using their faith as a weapon on others. I might suggest to them that God was an alcoholic who in his dementia dreamt up the food chain. That he wasn’t a very nice person to conceive of such a notion. They said he created this world so surely he is responsible for this fundamental flaw. We top predators in this food chain praise him.
What can God make of all this killing, rendering and chewing? He can’t say he is only trying to help. He must take some responsibility, it’s his scenario, he created it. However that usually is where my rave would end, but who knows I could continue. Maybe I could say something about how God had moved onto another part of the universe. We were just a mistake he doesn’t want to think about.
Well, so much for God, but what about death? When Fraser [McDonald, an eminent psychiatrist], my husband, was dying he cheered up when I told him Woody Allen’s joke “I am not afraid of dying I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. Nor did Fraser, and nor do I.
Well that’s all for now and have a lovely day.