Gary Day

August 25, 2006

I had to look twice before I could believe my eyes. Yes, that was a skull dangling on the end of my garden fork. It was a long time ago, and I was working in a cemetery in Newbury. It was a bit of a dead-end job, but being young and irreverent we used to liven things up by writing messages with the pebbles that decorated the plots of the dearly departed.

"Having a great time, wish you were here", that kind of thing. Once, my friend lay on the altar while I read the burial service backwards. We just wanted to see what happened. Nothing. Except he is now very rich. Does that meanI? Oh, never mind.

The little crumb of madeleine that summoned these memories was an advert for "the chair of death studies. Half time." Why chair? Wouldn't coffin be more appropriate? And why half time? Were they busy sucking blood or being flesh-eating zombies the other half? George Steiner said that "central to a true culture is a certain view of the relation between time and individual death". If anyone knows what that means, they should get the job. I can't help thinking that there's an Agatha Christie novel in there somewhere. Who is the relation? Are they viewing or being viewed? And where were they at the time of the individual's death? But it is probably more profound than that. Someone said that to learn how to philosophise is to learn how to die. Not a great reason for reading Plato, is it? Cicero had a better one: "There is nothing so absurd as not to have been said by a philosopher." But then he hadn't heard of the Quality Assurance Agency or the Institute of Learning and Teaching.

What are death studies? Our culture can't even cope with the fact that we age, let alone that we must shuffle off this mortal coil. Religion made death a passage, but in our secular society it is the end. Still, when you think of the things you will never have to do again, such as mark essays, it's not too bad. And let's face it. Death, like so much in life, is just something else you won't experience. Looked at in that way, it's not so terrible, just disappointing. According to one source, "academic interest in death has developed rapidly over the past decade, and people are increasingly thinking about (it) in new ways".

This is not surprising. Everything else is being modernised and given a makeover, so why not the Grim Reaper? He looks like a hoodie. We need to make death more consumer friendly. Show that it's for everyone, not just old people. Or maybe death studies is a coded way of exploring the disappearance of our civil liberties. Free speech, habeas corpus, the right to protest, trial by jury and even the right to quote George Orwell have all been found floating face downwards in a river of legislation.

Some such motive must have led to the establishment of this subject.

Perhaps death studies is also an attempt to make us take our mortality a little more seriously. In which case, it shouldn't be taught in universities. These are highly fickle institutions that cover up their lack of direction by changing the way they work every six months in order to appear innovative and dynamic. Those who run them - though no one seems to want to own up to that responsibility - are committed to killing thinking in all its forms. If they're not closing departments, they are simplifying subjects out of existence. Breast-feeding, not spoon-feeding, is the norm.

"That which can be made explicit to the idiot," wrote William Blake, "is not worth my care." But he was mad and couldn't possibly understand that universities dumb down for a reason. The Higher Education Academy knows perfectly well that, to quote Steiner again, "true teaching can be terribly dangerous" because it "awakens doubt and trains for dissent". What is the point of disagreement in a society such as ours? Pedagogues are probably right to protect students from such futile pursuits. And indeed from the sort of fatuous nonsense that goes with them. Dante observed... oh, but he's from the Middle Ages, what does he know?

We must live in the now. This country always seems to be invading some nation or other, tyrannies need propping up, and there are lots of fatal accidents in the workplace. A few months ago, two men died falling into a tank of offal. With all this death around, it makes sense to add it to the curriculum. We need to understand that it's necessary to bomb children. And an appreciation of our inevitable demise may even make us live a little. Do that thing we always wanted to do. Because you never...

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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