The fear of life

Vigor Mortis: the end of the death taboo

Kate Berridge <em>Profile Books, 273pp, £17.99</em>

ISB

This book will need a new introduction when the paperback edition comes out. What Kate Berridge describes as "the new pornography of death" was much in evidence after 11 September, in the full-page colour pictures of a four-year-old girl killed on a hijacked plane, the broadcast tapes of those last terrible mobile phone messages from victims, and the self-indulgent articles from the literati about how watching death live on TV made them feel. Whether or not Berridge is right that death has replaced sex as "the focus of the new permissiveness", second-hand grief certainly seems to be giving some an emotional hard-on.

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States, everybody has been asking: "What do we tell the children?" That would not have been a problem in Victorian times, when death and mourning were part of everyday life and a popular journal called Child's Companion published a New Year message reminding its young readers that "you may not live to see the end of the year just begun".

Vigor Mortis describes the mass slaughter of the First World War as marking a "watershed between the death acceptance of the Victorians and 20th-century death denial". The focus moved from the body (families didn't get their war dead back) to the new rituals of remembrance, such as the two-minute silence and the Cenotaph. And for the first time, Berridge suggests, death became taboo, bereavement "a shameful secret". Through the 20th century, improvements in public health made death less of an everyday event. Instead, the young experienced it viscerally, through the media. At the same time, the decline of collective and religious traditions meant that grief and mourning shifted from the public sphere to the private.

Today, writes Berridge, a "society which has for so long averted its gaze from death cannot stop staring at it". She sees the public reaction to the death of Diana in 1997 as the turning point. The new rituals of flower-laying, mass remembrance and personal tributes, already taking shape in response to the tragedies at Hillsborough and Dunblane, blossomed after that drink-driving accident in Paris. Post-Diana, we have seen the spread of preplanned and personalised funerals (bright clothes, jokes and champagne), a boom in celebrity memorial services, and a "tidal wave of creative interest in death", from the art of Damien Hirst to the Holocaust industry. Forget the death taboo, Berridge tells us: "Death is in."

Vigor Mortis is full of fascinating and unexpectedly lively stuff. The few conclusions Berridge allows herself to draw, however, hint at a darker view of the human condition. While she wants us to "reclaim death" from the "fool's paradise" of 20th-century denial, she is unhappy about the way it has now returned to the public sphere as "a cheap trick turned by artists". The new pornography of death, she rightly observes, has less to do with an enlightened readmission of death to everyday life than with a waning of sensibility. Writing of the loss of faith as a "particular sadness of the 20th century", however, Berridge sounds almost nostalgic for the days when our Victorian ancestors "saw death more nearly and clearly through a lens of ill health and religious conviction".

There is no going back, but she suggests that, in our age of alternative spirituality, "we could learn much from other cultures" about how to conquer our desires in life and prepare for the afterlife. In fact, the attempt to set such low horizons for the living chimes rather well with our contemporary death cult. The most important thing that we have lost is faith in our own capacity to change the world for the better. People seem concerned to give new meaning to death because life has lost any meaning beyond the wish to prolong it, and even that desire is called into question by the way legalised euthanasia has become a fashionable cause among the young. At the same time, collective expressions of mourning and remembrance have been promoted in the absence of anything more dynamic to bond people together. As the grotesque Dutch auction of grief continues, any advance on a three-minute silence?

Remembering is important (although, as those who lived through the horrors of war have pointed out, forgetting can be a good thing, too). But we now seem to be stepping over the edge into a pit of unhealthy morbidity that comes close to ancestor worship. Berridge suggests that the grave is "the cradle of civilisation". I preferred her quotation from the Fortnightly Review (1899) warning that "the fear of death is being replaced by the joy of life". A century later, that joy seems in danger of being ruined by the fear of life itself.

Mick Hume is the editor of Spiked (www.spiked-online.com)