The Good Funeral Awards

There Is Nothing I Investigate So Eagerly As The Death of Men

4 May, 2011

I’ve been reading Montaigne’s essay, To philosophise is to learn how to die, and I found an unusual confession in it. He says “there is nothing I investigate so eagerly as the death of men”. It struck me because I’m the same.

I went to an ancient school and a university and one good thing they do is they publish magazines for alumni. As you get older, you realise that the interesting bit is the obituaries. The stories of people who studied 30 or 40 years before you. You realise how predictable some lives can be, especially in their career progression. I also look to see if any of my contemporaries have died.

This year one person, who I remember, did die. It was stated in the obituary how a bout of depression had proved too much, and she had not recovered. You don’t die of depression, I thought. The lady always seemed to me jolly and personable, so I was sad about it. I did an internet search and discovered a website that included many tributes from friends. She was an outstanding scientist.

One friend wrote: Once, when we went to Mass, without any prompting, she made a beeline for the confessional and, in her desperation, broke all protocols by jumping the queue and charging in, causing much consternation among the penitents.

Such was her distress that she seemed to have a need for confession. At the Mass that followed she whispered that the priest had advised that she keep out of the way of temptation. Baffled, I asked “What temptation?” “Temptation to commit suicide”, she said, which reminded me of the nature and craving of her continued internal struggle.

I then did further searches and found this story: A mentally-ill scientist committed suicide because she feared she would not be well enough to return to work, an inquest heard. K was found hanging from rafters at her home in Old Dover Road, Canterbury, by a friend and former work colleague. She was 45…continues… Police said they found Miss K’s body hanging from a dressing gown cord attached to a rafter through the loft hatch. Pathologist Dr AA said death was caused by hanging.

I had to absorb these details and work out how I felt about it. The physical details are very upsetting. There are characters who long to end their own lives and K seems to have been one of them. K’s mother had died and she’d had abandoned an attempt to move to Australia. The epithet ‘mentally-ill’ is rather unfair, from the accounts at her memorial service, she was extremely vivacious, but troubled.

What would Montaigne have thought? In some sense I am part of a ‘body ‘of people who passed through the same institution at a certain time, so I can identify with what she did more keenly. K did what she wanted to do at the time. That’s a choice open to all of us. There is strength to be drawn from what she did. Life does have meaning and purpose, but K lost touch with that. We all do rash things when we lose our sense of perspective. The value of her act is to remind us of the consequences, you can almost see generosity in that. It’s possible to see what she did as a mistake, but a brave one.