17 Nov

Making it worse

Appalling car crash in Yorkshire. Five killed, including four sixth formers from the same school.

Then the head teacher comes on The Today Programme to be interviews by John Humphrys and all the now obligatory rigmarole starts: “Counselling…support…flowers…candles lit…books of condolence…no words to express our feelings etc”

Yes, there are words and I’ll come to what they are in a minute.

Post-Christian society cannot cope with the fact of death and so its only recourse is to sentimentalise it. And that does no one any good, because it is really an avoiding of the issue.

I have some experience in the deaths of schoolchildren. When I was eight, I walked into the school yard one morning and there was the dead body of one of my mates who had been climbing on the back of the milk lorry for the fun of the ride. He’d fallen under the wheels and was crushed. A teacher stood by the body over which he had thrown a blanket. He ushered us all through briskly. We were all disturbed and scared. In a very silent assembly the headmaster told us what had happened, said some prayers and cautioned us all not to climb on to the back of the milk lorry in future. The death of our friend had been a shocking lesson and none of us went near the milk lorry again.

Thirty years on from that event, I was myself a teacher, head of RE and chaplain in a downtown state secondary school in Bolton, Lancashire. There were two incidents of untimely deaths in the four years I was there. A brother and sister killed crossing the road on their way home from school. Then two boys drowned in a mill pond.

Naturally, on both occasions the whole school was upset. But no words? Yes there are:

“There has been a terrible accident. Two pupils have been killed. They were our friends and we shall miss them. We send our sympathy to their parents and brothers and sisters. And we pray for the repose of their souls, these our friends who are now in the nearer presence of God. Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light perpetual shine upon them.”

The headmaster followed me on to the rostrum and repeated his warning about the dangers of running into the road without looking and of playing in the mill ponds.

The whole school walked out in silence and we got on with our lessons.