The phrase, in the title and in the text below, is a quotation from Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong”, described by critics as “literature at its very best; a book with the power to reveal the unimagined, so that one’s life is set in a changed context”, “a considerable addition to the fin-de-siècle flowering of First World War literature”. The scene is the Cathedral of Amiens, shortly before the 1914-1918 massacre of eighteen million people, the apocalyptic devastation that included the Battle of the Somme, which is the central subject of this superb historical novel :
“A handful of people were praying in the body of the church. A medieval bishop was commemorated in Latin on a stone beneath Stephen’s feet, his name still not erased by the traffic of the years. He felt sorry for whatever anguish had caused the urgent prayers of the scattered worshippers, though also mildly envious of their faith. The chilly, hostile building offered little comfort; it was a memento mori on an institutional scale. Its limited success was in giving dignity through stone and lapidary inscription to the trite occurrence of death. The pretence was made through memorial that the blink of light between two eternities of darkness could be saved and held out of time, though in the bowed heads of the people who prayed there was only submission.
“So many dead, he thought, only waiting for another eyelid’s flicker before this generation joins them. The difference between living and dying was not one of quality, only of time.
“He sat down on a chair and held his face in his hands. He saw a picture in his mind of a terrible piling up of the dead. It came from his contemplation of the church, but it had its own clarity; the row on row, the deep rotting earth hollowed out to hold them, while the efforts of the living, with all their works and wars and great buildings, were no more than the beat of a wing against the weight of time.” (page 59)
On this, the day of my last brother’s funeral, I remember my visits with him to this splendid Cathedral which I dared to describe in a brochure commissioned by the General Council of the Somme as “the world’s most beautiful cathedral”, to the battle-fields where so many Australian soldiers were blasted to Kingdom Come by German artillery, and to the Villers-Bretonneux monument and museum, scenes of the movie “A Story of Good Men” in which I recently played the rôle of the grandson of one of the Anzac heroes of the Battle of the Somme.
Two days ago, the tragic taking of hostages by a religious maniac and the death of two of them in Martin Place, Sydney, filled Australia and TV viewers around the world with horror. Their deaths were anything but trite. Death is a constant, everyday occurrence, inevitable, inescapable, but never trite. Sometimes, as in Martin Place, it is tragic. My brother’s was not.
Jim, the third of my brothers to die, was a priest for fifty-eight years. He made sense of death, the preprogrammed end of earthly life, by believing that it would be followed by a glorious eternal after-life. He found, as billions of others find, comfort in the illusion. At 83, he had led, as a priest, a long life that he, and the thousands of his parishioners, considered fulfilling and meaningful. We mourn his departure but celebrate his life.
It is much more difficult for the families grieving the violent deaths of the two young hostages caught in the cross-fire in the downtown Sydney Lindt Chocolate Café. We feel outrage at their meaningless deaths, at the destruction of lives not even half as long as Jim’s four score and three. Dying is the natural term of life. But dying the way they did is intolerable. It is as unbearable for atheists as it is for non-atheists. We can only hope that our own deaths will be more like Jim’s : no surprise, no violence, no pain. At least then it makes it a little easier for the living to get on with their lives.