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Upon the Catafalque — some thoughts on the body of a queen: #WrightNews 5-11 Sep 2022
Some thoughts on the body of a queen
… since we live in the heads of those who remember us, we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be.
Above their scrap of history, / Only an attitude remains: /Time has transfigured them into / Untruth.
—Larkin, ‘An Arundel Tomb’
A famous body in a box travels down from Scotland. Soon the body will reach Westminster Abbey and it will lie in state for four days. People who did not know the famous body but somehow feel as though they do will shuffle past, muted and muffled by the solemnity and stone. If it is a grey day, they will say it is because a nation mourns. If it is sunny, they will say it is because she is smiling down upon us.
When they shuffle past the body, they will be closer than they ever have been, yet just as far away from it as they have ever been. They will have been taken in by the camera’s lying wink, bellies fluttering at its swoops and dives and pans. The moment they pass the coffin, their closeness to the body is counteracted by the anonymity of the wood that shields it from their gaze. They will not see small white hands, the placidity of eyelids, the sutured repose of mouth. The body will be a product of imagination only. An act of faith.
Over 1,500 miles away another body, its veins crazy with chemicals, lies in state. This one is kept looking as though he were alive by a crack team of dedicated scientists. In repose he is a mockery of a god, a kind of bed-ridden Ozymandias yawning out his boast of ‘Look upon my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ There has been talk of burying Lenin’s body since 1991, but it remains on display in the Mausoleum. Do human beings not know what to do with the dead? Some bodies are objects of veneration; their treatment in death mirroring their status and reputation in life. See, as an example, the Catholic ‘incorruptibles’ — saints whose bodies putatively never decomposed. Their body represents their morality. This is what we do with bodies. We treat them in accordance with their status.
Because of this, for almost everybody death is a slide into anonymity, if not immediately, then almost so. Visit a graveyard and you’ll see, even among the recently interred, plots gone to ruin, the grass and weeds swaying in a final prayer. Headstoneless plots, only noticeable by the unruly thatch of rectangular grass and — perhaps — a weatherworn cross. Such plots are often flanked by well-tended graves, their headstones bragging monolithically to passersby. But under the surface all is equalised: matter breaks unfailingly down. The barriers separating body and world are shown to be the falsehoods they always were. But, for these ordinary dead, there are no cameras or catafalques, no processions, no stoppages, no holidays — their deaths are small moments of crackly static, and then no more.
There is another extreme. There are bodies that are sites of extreme pain, their lives and deaths spasms of agony. These, too, give the lie of closeness when in fact they are so distant. Those bodies — those minoritised bodies — are, when photographed, reframed in more ways than one. The photograph becomes product and the image, as the body, does not belong to the person, and never did. The images of lingchi I link to here (they are disturbing, so do click at your own risk) are moments near the point of death in which a human body is dismembered. To dismember is to anonymise. In the West, Foucault notes there is a “disappearance of torture as a public spectacle”; a “new theory of law and crime” is drawn up, starting at around the 1760s. Punishment stops being a public spectacle and becomes “the most hidden part of the penal process.”Why? There has been a paradigm shift, Cartesian in its nature, in which the mind matters far more than the body. Transhumanists believe that it’s only a matter of time before one can discard the body and live on — perhaps as data, perhaps in a new body. But, in the contemporary imagination, the idea that the body is the person has claw-marks on it. We cannot let it go. Mourners file past the body in the Abbey because it is the Queen, not because it used to be. The body of a queen has a mystic power, made more potent by its invisibility.
There is no getting around it: her body gets the treatment it does — treatment tantamount to a kind of worship — because there is still a collective belief that some people are essentially better than others. To file past the coffin is the same as filing past a relic. You hope for a transfer of holiness, some indulgence by mere proximity.
But this desire to be close to the royal corpse speaks to human attitudes to death. They are many, but one I think is common is an inability to process the reality of the thing. On the news, real bodies seem fake; we are alienated from the suffering portrayed because it “wars are living room sights and sounds”, no more real than cinema. What did it feel like? people are asked after huge, terrible or otherwise momentous events. “It felt like a movie,” comes the answer.
And so we negotiate our own complex relationship with death, with the fragility and temporality of the body. Over this royal coffin people will drape the flags of their own lives, their own neuroses, bête noires, secrets. I shall not go. But at times like these I recall the coffins and caskets from my own lives. The first was a little white one. It was for a baby, my little brother Joshua, who was stillborn. My father, throughout the funeral mass, kept telling me that Joshua wasn’t in there, that it was just a box. Maybe he felt that elasticity of his muscles pulling him down the nave, to run to the casket, to crack it open, to see — really see — whether or not his son was really in there. But he did not. He stayed next to me, and I slipped my seven-year-old hand into his, because it was the right thing to do.
The body of a baby, the body of a queen. David Eagleman wrote:
There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
The nature of history means that Elizabeth’s name will be spoken for many, many years. I feel as though Joshua’s third death is looming. It doesn’t matter to him; deaths are never about the dead. They are about the living, who have to make sense of a new invisibility, of person becoming suddenly abstract, kept alive via the life-support of their own synapses. Joshua is an idea; he can be reused by me at will as, say, a symbol of tragic innocent loss, of the grief of children, of the fragility of parenthood. People will — they already are, already have — narrativised Elizabeth in a similar way. It isn’t about her — if it ever was — it is about us. Maybe this is what discomfits us so? Look upon the dead: you stare right back, at yourself.
Discipline and Punish, 1975
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003