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The strangeness of death in life and literature

A woman died after being hit by a train at the crossing at the end of my street. V/Line announced on social media that trains would be halted until the scene was cleared. The local paper reported that the circumstances around the death were unknown, and police were ‘processing’ the scene.

I quickly made a mental note of where my mum, who lives around the corner, would be at this time of day, and realised she was far away, holidaying, on this particular Thursday.

Less than 24 hours later, I was reluctant to cross the site of the accident, but had to take the kids to school along that road. The crossing looked just the same as it always did. There was no sign that this was the scene of someone’s, and presumably, a whole family’s, great tragedy. And the normality felt infinitely sad. It brought to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s famous words in reaction to death in Slaughterhouse Five: “So it goes.”

These prosaic words make a kind of terrible sense in the face of the tragedy at the railway crossing, and perhaps all deaths.

Just as true and sad is the phenomenon of the casserole period after a death, about which Maria Tumarkin writes in Axiomatic.

“Everyone knows about the casseroles. A person dies and people – close, dear people and virtual strangers, some signed up to a special roster – converge on the dead person’s house bearing casseroles. And the way the casseroles appear and just as suddenly disappear, weeks later, brings to mind, it is true, flocks of birds swooping down then taking off … Then it stops.”

Like the casserole period, in the case of the death of a stranger there is the time when people place flowers at the scene of the tragedy. We see it when a woman is senselessly killed in a park in Melbourne or when a former princess dies on the other side of the world. I have never really understood the point of this. The person is dead. Those who lay flowers had often never met them. But, after passing that lonely railway crossing, I can see why it is done. I wanted to leave my own flowers there, just so there was something. A sign of a life gone, in that place.

Those who place flowers want to recognise that a life has passed in this place, to rage against the ultimate banality of death, the dying of the light, and to make it significant.

Writers treat death in different ways in literature. In some books, it is not taken lightly at all. It is heavy and important.

In The Spare Room, the death of a friend is drawn out, turned over in Helen Garner’s hands and mediated over.

While Garner’s book is about the precursor to a death, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking centres on life after her husband dies. There was nothing light or flippant about either writer’s approach to the deaths they experience. The lives and deaths have great weight, changing those who are left behind.

However, in As I Lay Dying, the death of the mother is accepted with stoicism by her children and husband. It is not hard to imagine some of this strange band of characters greeting the fact of her death with the words “So it goes”, as they embark almost wordlessly on their journey to take the body to its burial place. There is a resignation to their behaviour, and a sense that this death is just one among the many daily struggles, including terrible poverty and the hardship of the rural life, the family faces. However, perhaps, underlying this acceptance is a grief that fears becoming known. It’s hard to say for sure – this book is no easy-read and even literary critics vary in their interpretations of his writing.

In writing about death, Aldous Huxley was unsentimental:

“Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma. Thoroughly sensible, humane and scientific, eh?”

I appreciate the chance to ruminate over death in fiction, to read about its many forms and responses. In literature, the complexity of death, and the responses of those left behind, helps to glimpse its banality and horror, its inevitability and its tragedy, the combinations that are so very hard for the living to grasp, and to accept.

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