Lest We Forget: Life is not Non-Death

30 December 2020. Updated 31 December 2020.

by Sinead Murphy

It’s that time of year when we name the best and worst. Competition is stiff, on one side of the equation at least. How many worsts there have been, each hardly conceivable before it was suddenly real.

But there was a worst of all. In October in Milton Keynes. Two brothers moved to the side of their grieving mother, putting their arms around her shoulders as she sat before the box containing their dead father’s remains, only to be reminded by an official from the crematorium that they were not permitted to be within six feet of their mother during the ceremony – as if she had been lowered into the grave as their father was being raised onto the pyre.

It is the simplest of mourning rituals, a consoling arm around the shoulders. A fragment of a ritual, really. And yet it too has been made to retreat before the march of Health and Safety, those twin murderers of the last vestiges of our arts of living and dying.

What’s the big deal? So the Covid crew has challenged us this year. It’s hardly life or death.

They are right: a consoling arm around the shoulders is not life or death. Nor is the smile of an unmasked stranger. Nor is the shake of a friend’s hand. Nor the shouts of children at play. Nor the bustle of busy streets. Nor the good cheer of a family Christmas.

There is only one thing that is life or death: survival; bare, continued existence. And it is to survival we have been oriented this year, everything else – everything of conviviality – neglected.

And not just neglected – demonized. The rituals of life reframed, as a threat to continued existence. Explicitly a threat: the proximity of conviviality is linked to the spread of the virus. And implicitly a threat, a distraction from the project at hand.

When it is life or death, anything not directly relevant becomes intolerable. Hence the creep this year to prohibition – South Africa has just banned the sale of alcohol, Scotland would do so if it dared. Hence the suspension of religious gatherings in massive airy cathedrals. Hence the erasure of singing in schools. Hence all these spurious assaults on conviviality. Living is vicious indulgence once life becomes virtuous survival.

When it is life or death, the arts of life are lined up for censure on the side of death, and what is called ‘life’ is simply non-death, a technical survival programme.

What’s the big deal? – the Covid crew’s refrain. Let’s sort survival first; plenty of time afterwards for the arts of life to return.

But it is not like that. The habits of life, once broken, do not return easily and may not return at all. We trusted to them like we trust in the fidelity of a life-partner. Indeed, we hardly knew they were there – which of us has ever rejoiced in our freedom to meet whomever we choose, to travel wherever we wish, to leave home whenever we see fit? Which of us has noticed that we were ‘free’ to celebrate Christmas, to invite friends for a meal, to watch football down the pub? The arts of life are, by their nature, endemic. Their hold upon us is due to our trust in them. When they are suspended for purposes of survival, we may take them back again when given the chance, but some will be lost forever and the charms of others may never revive.

Most of the Covid restrictions were inconceivable this time last year. Now they have been made real, they can never be inconceivable again.

And the ground zero of it all is the crematorium in Milton Keynes. When the smallest of ritual gestures was summarily dismantled there, it epitomized all of the dismantlings that came before and after. If an arm around the shoulders is disallowed, what hope for a funeral gathering in the village hall? What hope for any ritual, which might reclaim from and for our three-score-years-and ten that purpose and energy we call life? What hope for celebrations of birthdays, of Christmas? What hope for hobbies and sports? For marriage and children? For businesses started, for careers pursued? What hope for all those ways in which we have, throughout our history, consoled ourselves in the face of death and enjoyed the bitter sweets of the life of a mortal soul?

Make no mistake: when an old woman is denied the small comfort of her sons’ arms in the face of her husband’s death, it heralds the end of all the comforts of life. For, far from being only non-death, life – real, human life – unfolds in the face of death, comprising just the right amount of remembering death to give it its rhythm and urgency and just the right amount of forgetting death to give it its joy and purpose.

Life – real, human life – is not life or death. It is life and death; or, as the philosophers say, life-towards-death.

The Guardian newspaper ran a headline for months this year – So Much Living Left To Do – under which were written accounts of those who had died with COVID-19. Yet the average age of Covid death in England and Wales is more than 82 years. Older than the average life expectancy. And of those who died younger than this, almost all had co-morbidities. Those who died with COVID-19 this year did not have so much living left to do. They had, almost universally, very little living left to do. Their lives were not unimportant. But their lives were coming to an end.

But when life is merely non-death, there is no nuance, no context, no qualification. There is not more life and less life, there is not better quality of life and worse quality of life. There is simply life – absolute life. And therefore no limit to the amount of living left to do.

When life is no longer life-towards-death, when life is a matter of life or death, life loses its vital metre. There is no rise and fall. There is no time to die. There is just life. Which is to say, non-death.

Jonathan Sumption spoke recently in interview of the immorality of the UK Government’s restrictions on the freedoms of the population. Even if these restrictions could be shown to reduce the spread of the virus, he said, they are not inevitably acceptable. After all, he continued, locking every member of the population into a wooden box and piping nourishment through a tube would certainly halt the spread of the virus, but we would surely not accept such an intervention.

It was difficult not to tremble at his argument. This time last year, would we have accepted being locked into our houses and delivered sustenance by masked and distanced delivery drivers? Mere survival, we would have thought. No life at all. Are we very far from being locked into our boxes and delivered sustenance by a tube?

What’s the big deal, after all? It’s hardly life or death.

Sinead Murphy is a philosophy lecturer at Newcastle University.

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