This morning’s news continues to be dominated by the rising death toll following the devastating earthquake in Nepal that has destroyed thousands of lives and homes and the historic cultural centre of Kathmandhu.
It is, perhaps, hard for many of us, to imagine what it is like to experience the destruction of our known world and to come face to face with the indifference of nature to all that gives human life meaning: relationships; achievements; place; community; history.
In Britain, our vulnerability to such disasters is naturally low and our infrastructure is more robust because we have the resources and the technology to build smart. That means that many of us have little experience to draw on in order to imagine what survivors in Nepal are facing. Even at the personal level, we have become so detached as a culture from the experience of death in daily life that it is perhaps hard for us to grasp what even one death means – even at a funeral these days you may not see a coffin, let alone a body, for quite often the deceased has already been cremated in private, and the mood of the service will be celebratory leaving little room for grief.
But I wonder what we miss out on by not looking death in the face?
In the stories told of Jesus’ death by Christians in this Easter Season, it is not until his disciples have looked into the empty tomb and even entered it that any sense of new life begins to dawn; and Jesus is recognized in his risen state chiefly by the wounds of his crucifixion. The message is clear – that death is real – and needs to be entered into for any new life to follow.
On Friday I visited the British Museum. Just inside the main entrance there is an exhibition of Aboriginal Australian memorial poles. Known as larrakitj these hollowed and painted trees were originally made as ossuaries in which the bones of the dead were stored as standing memorials at the heart of the community. On the accompanying video the artist, Wukun Wanambi, paints the larrakitj, layer upon layer, with fish. Why fish? because, he explains, the life of his tribal community depended on the shoals of mullet that swam into the local bay. To the camera, he speaks of the life force that flows through him as he paints, commemorating the dead and evoking lost community, but simultaneously connecting him with his roots, his sense of identity and his power as an agent in the world.
In Nepal the rebuilding of life will take the facing of what is lost, the resources and generosity of the global community and the resilience and hope of its own traumatised people.
Meanwhile, for those of us who live in so-called ‘developed societies’ far away, I wonder: if we were to allow the reality of death to be more a part of our daily lives, whether we would feel a stronger sense of vitality and belonging and agency to live our lives to the full, as we express our solidarity with people who suffer disaster everywhere?
First broadcast 27 April 2015
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