No one gets out of here alive. We all know it, but if we are sensible, we don’t dwell on it. That isn’t to say we should ignore it, accepting that we, and everyone we know and love, are going to die should be life-enhancing, not a reason to give up. The fact that this is all going to end should inspire us to make the time we have here mean something, give us a fire to be adventurous and creative, making sure that every second counts.
From ashes to riches
From the ashes of death and destruction new civilisations are built, great creations are constructed and new orders are established. According to this article in Daily Art Magazine, which explores the prevalence of skulls in art, “art only exists because death exists”. Skulls are prevalent in many culture’s arts, particularly in today’s Western modern art, such as Damien Hirst’s ‘For the Love of God, 2007’ which is a Human skull adorned with platinum and diamonds. You see skulls everywhere you look, from the fashion for having a skull as a tattoo design on your skin to the skulls all over the popular Alexander McQueen silk scarves.
Despite today’s creative fascination with death, we do not worship it in quite the same way as the Victorians. I recently visited the Necropolis in Glasgow, which is the grandest cemetery I have ever been to, with huge monuments raised in memory of the wealthy and notable at the time, from a large statue of John Knox ath the top of the hill to an impressive tiered octagonal building which is the mausoleum of Major Archibold Douglas Monteath (no I don’t know who he is either).
The Victorians really went to town when it came to remembering the dead. Widows were expected to wear full mourning for two years, there were complicated mourning dress codes and reams of instructions about mourning etiquette. So why were they so obsessed with death? According to writer Stephanie Carroll, the main reason is that they were surrounded by it, “Without modern medicine the average lifespan was half of what it is today, and hospitals were still disease invested holes where people were sent to be forgotten. Thus people died regularly and they died in the home where everyone could witness each horrific moment.”
Dead, not buried
Today, our culture, on the surface, is not so obsessed with death, and mourning rituals are largely forgotten. However, the fact that it seeps into our art, shows that unlike dead bodies, we can’t just bury the reality and therefore remove it – death is still all around, waiting to grab us. Even charity campaigns, which concern terminal illnesses, don’t focus on the reality of death, but instead focus on survivors, such as this Cancer Research UK video which looks at David, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
It’s good that we fight to survive, but at the same time, knowing that one day this is all going to end, is possibly the greatest source of inspiration we have. In the words of that not-too-shabby writer Shakespeare: “To die, to sleep – no more – and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to – 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!”.