“So supernatural is the word death”

From The Queer Feet, one of the stories in G.K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown (warning: spoilers, sweetie!):

The proprietor turned upon him, quaking in a kind of palsy of surprise. “You say—you say,” he stammered, “that you see all my fifteen waiters?”

“As usual,” assented the duke. “What is the matter with that!”

“Nothing,” said Lever, with a deepening accent, “only you did not. For one of zem is dead upstairs.”

There was a shocking stillness for an instant in that room. It may be (so supernatural is the word death) that each of those idle men looked for a second at his soul, and saw it as a small dried pea. One of them—the duke, I think—even said with the idiotic kindness of wealth: “Is there anything we can do?”

“He has had a priest,” said the Jew, not untouched.

The context of this isn’t desperately important. I just wanted to draw your attention to one phrase that leapt out at me when I read this: “so supernatural is the word death”.

I was in a bookshop yesterday and saw a copy of Gilbert Adair’s novel The Dreamers on display. A handwritten card on the shelf read: “The recently passed Adair’s best-known novel.”

I had to read the card two or three times to work out what it was saying: “What does it mean, this recently passed Adair’s best-known novel? What was his best-known novel previously, and in what way did this pass it?” Then the penny dropped: the card was informing me that Gilbert Adair had recently died (in December, as it happens).

It’s a vivid example of how the euphemism “passed” is sweeping all before it as an alternative to words such as “death”, “dead” or “died”: words which, as Chesterton observes, have a “supernatural power” that perhaps forces us to spend a second or so looking at our souls. I suspect that the popularity of words like “passed” is a sign that we’d rather not do that. For some reason.

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1 thought on ““So supernatural is the word death””

  1. I consider it to be my privilege to speak of death with the bereaved. It seems to be the new taboo.

    I try to assert to people that death is a part of life, that death gives context to life, and that even in their pain and loss, it shows the significance of the death of a loved one in our midst.

    That Henry Scott-Holland poem which begins “Death is nothing at all” makes me (want to) respond “bollocks! If death really was nothing, we wouldn’t be doing this”. It is. It is therefore my privilege to celebrate a life, mark a death, signify their loss and tell of the resurrection which is the promise of us all.

    …because with each and every funeral, I begin to appreciate more and more that it really IS all about the resurrection.

    Fr. S

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