From Melanie McDonagh in THE TABLET, 5 September 2019
My mother died last night, a little before midnight. I am sitting beside her body. Last night I slept in the chair next to her. She died, to my annoyance, just as I was making tea in the kitchen, after she had been turned in her bed – she couldn’t move by herself except to clench fiercely any hand that prised her fingers open to hold hers.
Her breath had changed before she died and become more raspy and laboured, but she was still capable of response … an effort at smiling, an agitation when she heard a familiar song or verse. She had heard quite a lot of those.
Her party piece as a child was to recite “The Lady of Shalott” from start to finish; my son and my cousin accordingly read it to her, several times. The priest had been to anoint her. So when it came to the end, I did not say prayers with her; we played her Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”.
For the Christians of the middle ages, the deathbed was an exciting scene of contention between the demons who sought to seize the Christian soul and the angels and St Michael who fought them off. And it was Michael who held the scales that judged the soul of the dead – a throwback, I think, to the days when monks inhabited the temples of Egypt (they put crosses on the ancient altars) and Christianised Anubis. And the unseen battle was accompanied by the prayers of neighbours and friends around the bed.
In my case, while I was very glad of the visits of the priest, it takes a certain steeliness to talk to the dying about their journey. So I played “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” to her rather than saying prayers. The music I was trying to keep at bay was Mozart’s Dies Irae. And my mother tried hard to stay alive; her eyes didn’t close for a night and a day.
I had always thought that a deathbed should be like The Dream of Gerontius , with those around it sending the soul off with their prayers. Instead I gave my mother a swab dipped in hot whiskey and lemon.
And when she left the world for the great journey, I still couldn’t bear to pray, at least, not yet. We covered the looking glass, for reasons we couldn’t remember, and opened the window for the soul to escape; I would have stopped the clocks, except it was useful to know the time.
Dimly I recalled that my neighbour had said that the body should not be moved for three hours after death, because that was when the soul was being judged. In fact, my first move was to find her dentures to make sure that she would look her best when visitors came. I stoutly refused to have her embalmed.
Everyone left eventually, and I was left to spend the night with my mother, just the two of us. It should have been a vigil; instead I fell asleep in the chair. I would have been right there with the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, sleeping when they should have kept watch. The good thing about the final blow falling is that Nature is merciful; your tired brain doesn’t quite register reality; that comes later. But it’s still beastly being an orphan, even when you’re a grown-up one.
The great thing about a death in Ireland is that people know what to do, how to behave. The priest returned today to bless my mother for the journey; we said the Rosary. Friends came to say they are sorry for my loss, to wish that my mother should have a bed for the night in Heaven. The etiquette of death overcomes individual reticence and gives graceful words to kindness.
And the interval between death and burial is mercifully short. If you die on Sunday, you can be buried on Wednesday; a very different matter from the couple of weeks people must wait in London to be interred. We all know what to do. Tomorrow night my mother will be taken to church; there she – her body – will be left to spend the night before the altar. At the close of the service, people will come up to the front row to pay their respects.
But before that I shall spend a last night with my mother before she leaves her house for good. As the Protestants say on their gravestones, she has been Called Home.
Requiescat in pace.
Melanie McDonagh is senior writer at the London Evening Standard.