“STILL not a morning person.” This and other quirky epitaphs are to be found at the Southern Cemetery, Manchester, and were featured in Who Will Call Me Beloved? (Radio 4, Monday of last week), in which the writer-in-residence, Tania Hershman, reflected on the proper forms of address to the dead. In particular, as a single woman with no close family, how might she be addressed when, finally, she occupies one of these plots?
This could easily have got horribly self-indulgent but for the encounters with those people — such as the friendly grave-diggers — who steered the programme away from the mawkish. The least enviable job is that of the minister who, even in cases in which the deceased is unmourned, must still concoct a homily.
The padre’s opening was unpromising: “We know only a few things about John. . . He was born on a Tuesday.” In fairness, the subsequent disquisition was dignified and thoughtful, while not “imposing a religious script” on somebody whose faith was unknown.
But, if you ever thought that working in a place such as this would give you emotion fatigue, then you must hear the sobs of the padre as he described his favourite epitaph among the thousands: written by a mother mourning the loss of her son just before the end of the Great War. “Into the diadem of victory I place my most precious jewel: my son.” They don’t write them like that any more.
The proper forms of address to the dead have traditionally been as closely circumscribed as those to the living. Epistolary address is still subject to rules, even if emails and texts have made the rules more complicated. But, as Adam Gopnik observed in A Point of View (Radio 4, Friday), it is only in the emails of spammers that you can rely on the kind of courtesy and formality which 50 years ago was de rigueur when writing a letter. The missives sent by businesspeople promising huge rewards in return for your bank account details are festooned with expressions of respect and gratitude. They are “aware of your reputation”, and “solicit your attention”, apologising in sycophantic terms for taking up your precious time.
As a result, email filters are now treating such courtesies as indicating malignant spam. Were we to be emailed by a bank manager from the 1920s, the mail would almost certainly now go into the Junk folder. Meanwhile, we are vulnerable to the most appalling rhetoric through other social-media portals, and no filter is in place to catch it.
While social care for the elderly is a hot political topic, the challenges and inconsistencies in the child-care system are at least as bewildering. As reported in From Cradle to Care (Radio 4, Monday of last week), the number of babies taken into care varies erratically between regions, and there is little agreement nationwide on best practice.
The chilling but necessary question that lies at the heart of this and many other issues of public-safety policy is whether it is possible to design a system that will prevent every death, without an intolerable level of state intervention.