Dead reckoning

It's neither ghoulish nor foolish to hold tutorials over one's own coffin, philosopher Peter Vardy insists. Students like to tackle the big questions in life - and none is bigger than death

August 18, 2011

Credit: Warner Bros
The philosopher's zone: the world of Harry Potter helps young people engage with death

I have my coffin in my college office. It was made for me by my son Luke when he was 16 as part of his GCSE design and technology coursework, a project he researched thoroughly by taking work experience with an undertaker. He took measurements most carefully, and even allowed for me to grow fatter, but I have shared his concern, both then and many times since, that the bottom might not bear my weight.

One could, of course, speculate as to the psychological reasons behind a son making his father's coffin. Yet I know that he knew that I wanted one and that I have always valued handmade, thoughtful presents. My father used to say that birthdays are times when people you don't like give you things you don't need, and this has always seemed apt to me when I see how most celebrations have become dominated by the exchange of useless things. Even funerals tend towards this practice, with people keeping tallies of the flowers sent or the donations made.

The idea of holding tutorials over my coffin appealed to me. I am fortunate to have spent 29 years working at Heythrop College, part of the University of London, which has stood against the tide with its one-to-one tutorial system for undergraduates. Every student has an individual tutorial on every essay and all the front-rank lecturers conduct tutorials. Looking back, I wonder how many hours I have spent teaching how many students - with my coffin as witness to it all?

A coffin seemed to me to be the most appropriate coffee table for a philosopher. Although one could be forgiven for thinking that philosophy is a branch of linguistics, given the direction of the subject in many UK and US universities in the past century, Plato said that philosophy is actually practice for death. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, not cleverness. It requires engagement with the ultimate questions of human experience, and death is surely the most important.

Initially, of course, students regard my coffin as a source of mild amusement and fascination. Comments about vampires and werewolves are predictable. However, the coffin serves as more than just a device to attract attention. It is designed to force reflection on more serious issues - both for the students and for me.

"Life's a bitch and then you die." "Life is a sexually transmitted condition ending in death." "Death and taxes are the only inevitabilities." "I'll kill you!" "I literally died of embarrassment." "He died on stage; nobody laughed." We talk about death all the time - and yet we don't. Increasingly, death has become a taboo, either trivialised or ignored. True, death is a journey that everyone must take alone, and at one level it doesn't matter whether one is surrounded by friends and relatives. Yet on another level confronting death and recognising it as part of life is essential.

In modern Western culture we have largely insulated ourselves from the reality of death. Old people are often packed off to homes. Many young people have never seen a dead body, and the tradition of grandparents growing old in the company of their grandchildren, and grandchildren eventually learning from the process of their death, is a thing of the past. People live longer and they are healthier; they make huge efforts to "stay young" and hold back the effects of advancing years. Indeed, there are few positives associated with age these days. Illness and death are rarely mentioned and then only in hushed voices and never over dinner - or in front of the children.

Perhaps this is because of the growth of a hedonistic, capitalist culture. Old, sick and dead people are of no commercial interest, so they are largely written out of the adman's narrative of our world. The common aim is to be happy and the common definition of happiness frighteningly superficial. To think about death, even to look as if death is something one ought to be thinking about, is seen as morbid or inappropriate.

Part of the genius of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of novels is the author's ability to help young people engage with death. All the books centre on the theme of death. Lord Voldemort's followers are known as Death Eaters, and death is what Voldemort fears more than anything else. He creates "horcruxes", which can be any object on which a portion of his soul is embedded - thereby enabling him to survive death. Each horcrux requires him to kill a person, but he considers this a small price to pay for what he sees as immortality.

If he is finally to kill Voldemort, Harry must destroy every one of the horcruxes. By contrast, for Professor Dumbledore and his friends, death is nothing to be feared - it is the next great adventure. When Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, is killed in a magical duel, Harry is distraught and he asks Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor ghost, whether Sirius will become a ghost as well. Nick explains that this is not the case - Sirius, because he does not fear death, will go on elsewhere and not be forced to linger in a sort of ghostly half-life.

Many modern films are preoccupied with death. The many vampire-themed TV and film productions (with the series based on Stephenie Meyer's book Twilight and its sequels the best known at the moment) explore the idea of vampires not being able to die. Although the disadvantages of this condition are given a nod, the advantages of living in a state of perpetual and usually glamorous youth are played up. What problem losing one's soul if it means not having to contend with wrinkles and loss? Bella Swan, Twilight's young protagonist, weighs up the prospect of becoming a vampire in the way many of her peers might weigh up the prospect of cosmetic surgery - no pain, no gain. And when the gain looks like Robert Pattinson...

In the Australian film Daybreakers (2009), almost everyone on earth has opted to become a vampire. Faced with a choice between a painful death and achieving immortality, the logic of becoming a vampire who cannot die is forceful. Cold Souls (2009), directed by Sophie Barthes, features a medical facility that can surgically remove people's souls and thus prevent them from suffering depression and despair - they can then get on with their lives free from these handicaps. It is a theme that is explored more sensitively in the strange Michel Gondry-directed film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), a rare film that dares to suggest that anguish, suffering and ageing may not be bad.

In my experience, young people are interested in death. Films give them what they want; the opportunity to think through life's big questions, albeit on a rather superficial level. But society at large (and our education system, for the most part) is not giving them the opportunity to develop their understanding of human issues on a deeper level. There are intellectual issues that need to be addressed.

First, of course, are the philosophical and theological issues. What could life after death mean? Is it even a conceptual possibility? Can identity be preserved in the face of the extinction of the body? What does it mean to be a person?

Dualists maintain that there is a separate soul that can exist after the death of the body. This is not a popular intellectual position today (even among religious people) both because of the lack of evidence and because of the secondary philosophical problems a dualist position carries. Yet most young people believe in the existence of a soul, although they usually lack the vocabulary and skills to defend their belief.

Second, there are the psychological issues. The inevitably of death has an effect on most people that begins to be felt by middle age, despite all efforts to ignore and deny it, and which contributes to the generational difference and the sense of alienation felt by the young.

Third, there are the medical and ethical issues. The euthanasia debate rumbles on, resurfacing with new names - "assisted suicide", "dignified death" and so on.

And then there are the financial issues caused by an ageing workforce. Current struggles between the government and teaching and other public-sector unions are caused, to a large extent, by people living longer, healthier lives and having come to enjoy long retirements in a way that was never envisaged by those who introduced pensions.

When did we start seeing it as our right to spend 20 years going on holiday, gardening or playing bingo subsidised by younger taxpayers while we are still fit enough, if not willing enough, to do a day's work? On the other hand, when did young people start seeing it as their right to assume top positions by the age of 30 and to denigrate anybody over 40 as "past it" and unemployable? The faces of politicians have become less and less lined as the faces of the people they represent have sagged.

Given the financial pressures, and speaking plainly, it seems that we face two alternatives. One is to postpone retirement, to cut back on pensions and to increase contributions. Another is compulsory euthanasia at, say, 85 or, alternatively, the denial of medical treatment. Why has nobody proposed these alternatives when everybody seems to be against the first suggestion?

It is the role of the philosopher to analyse the situation and state the options without being constrained by political necessities or social niceties. This is not to propose euthanasia as a solution but merely to show that it is an option if other possibilities are deemed unacceptable. If a good education is meant to prepare young people for life, then it should also place life in the context of inevitable death.

What is the point of life given that death is inevitable? In the face of death, all the normal priorities of a consumer society are quickly rendered meaningless. Among people who have had a near-death experience, death is generally no longer seen as something to be feared, and an individual's priorities change.

Increasingly, universities face what may be called the curse of the administrators. It is the administrators who are now the real power in universities. They often earn considerably more than academics and always hold the reins; and this trend will only increase once the universities are opened up to competition.

The advance of the administrators, rather like the advance of the Death Eaters in the world of Harry Potter, is insidious and seemingly irresistible. It seems to suck all the joy and meaning out of education. Continual demands for more and more measurement, and simplistic measurement at that, are justified by claims that this will enable money to be spent efficiently, risks to be minimised, value for money ensured. Yet the only thing the figures do is to create an appearance, a case to justify the administrators' own actions and a set of useful statistics for glossy publicity materials.

The effect of producing these simplistic measurements is to impose a restricted view of education. Any sense of vision is quickly put to the sword of quantifiable demand. What are we left with? Education that is designed by administrators becomes training for work, and training that gives no consideration to forming the people who are going to have to do the work or contribute to all the other aspects of society. Universities are going to have to publish data on graduates' employment outcomes, the implication being that a course that produces people who take up highly paid jobs immediately is better than one that produces people who have other priorities. In consequence, philosophy departments have already been slated for mergers and closure.

Having a coffin in one's office may be written off as attention-seeking or a personal eccentricity, but it is also a way of reminding students, colleagues and oneself of ultimate questions. These questions, like philosophy itself, have always been at the heart of university education and, generally, most students accept their importance.

University education should be training for life, and for death as an inevitable part of life, not just training for work. If we deny young people a rounded education and leave them distanced from the reality of life and the reality of death, we will (as Henry David Thoreau wrote) prevent them from "living deep and sucking out the marrow of life", and condemn them to arrive at the point of death only to discover that they have not lived.

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Reader's comments (1)

In the past I have been a student of Peter Vardy’s, and now I am in university administration so I will also roll my tub like Diogenes and make a comment. The problem with Vardy (apart from his tendency to see anti-realists hiding under every rock) is he views himself as operating in a Kierkegaardian sphere of “Religiousness B” in which he contemplates the profound momento mori in his office, whilst everyone else is basically part of the totally unreflective shipwreck of humanity. There is of course an irony involved in becoming an erudite salesman of these concepts. Given Vardy’s track record of simplifying, we should perhaps not be surprised that he makes another crass simplification – which is to say that administrators are advancing and that they don’t seem to add anything to the university. Vardy is FCCA and was once on the board of several FTSE listed companies, so he is of course well placed to know about the sort of performance measurement required in efficient organisations. Whilst we would expect the tenor of these processes to be different, Vardy is being intellectually dishonest if he believes that no such measurement is required in the public sector. Or is it just that he doesn’t want his performance measured? It is not true to say that statistics are merely for glossy materials, for they let the public know that their taxpayer’s money is not being wasted, and they let students know that they will get a quality learning experience if they come to a particular university. It may be inappropriate to talk about profit in the context of a university, but any organisation needs to have income in excess of its expenditure, or it ceases to be. At our university, administrators have worked alongside the academics to enable their mission – and at the same time we have turned a deficit into a surplus. I wonder what the administrators at Heythrop will be thinking about this article, and what it has done for their motivation levels to see this – written by their Vice-Principal.


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