Jonathan Rée writes a fascinating piece here, which has much about Christian attitudes to death and to corpses, and to the doctrinal highways and byways on that. What caught my eye more especially, though, were some illuminating remarks of his about the difficulties for us rationalists on the same subject. Jonathan writes:
The decline of hardline rationalism about bereavement may be part of a global social trend towards blubbering sentimentality and public exhibitions of grief: Princess Diana and all that. But there could be something more serious behind it too: a suspicion that the no-nonsense approach to death advocated by pure-minded atheists bears a horrible resemblance to the attitudes that lie behind the great political crimes of the 20th century - Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massified deaths of two world wars, the millions discarded as obstacles to progress in the Soviet Union and China, and of course the Nazi death camps.
If Holocaust stories are uniquely hard to bear, it is not because they describe suffering, death and humiliation on a bewildering scale, but because of the calculated impersonality and disinterested anonymity with which they were inflicted on their victims. In a restrained and startlingly beautiful new memoir called Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, the historian Otto Dov Kulka allows himself, after 70 years of reticence, to recall his life as a little boy in the grotesque quasi-normality of the "family camp" Auschwitz-Birkenau – an institution designed to provide Red Cross officials with living evidence that the inmates of the camps in Poland were happy and healthy and well looked after, though in reality they were destined for extermination like everyone else.
In a pivotal chapter Kulka prints translations of three poems, written in Czech from the point of view of a young female prisoner. One of them declares that "I'd sooner die a coward than have blood on my hands," and others speak of the prospect of leaving nothing to be remembered by: there will be no "wreaths or wrought-metal grilles" for those about to die, or for "betrayed youth" - but perhaps "no monument is needed." These are fine poems, but more than that too. They were written, as Kulka explains, on flimsy letter paper and thrust into the hands of a Kapo by a girl about to walk into a gas chamber. Later they were passed to Kulka's father, and, by a series of chances, saved from the destruction that engulfed almost everything else.
No one will ever know who the poet was, what she looked like, who she loved or where she came from: her name has been wiped from the historical record, along with any facts or memories or anecdotes that might distinguish her from six million other victims of mass murder. Maybe it's because I'm a sentimentalist that I feel twinges of reverence for the words on those frail pieces of paper. Maybe my fellow atheists will accuse me of religion-envy, but I cannot help lamenting the impossibility of an individual commemoration for the lost poet. The fact that no trace remains seems like an aggravation of a crime against humanity, a gratuitous exacerbation of injustice.
And then in conclusion:
It's a fine essay, worth your time; and it brings home why the irreligious among us need to acknowledge the values religion embodies that we too should hold on to.
To love someone is to treasure the hint of a smile, the strength of a hand, the set of a jaw, the plant of a foot or the curl of a lock of hair. And one of the disconcerting things about death is that it does not immediately annihilate these charms, as we might expect and even hope: more than a trace of them lingers in the cold corpse. A fuss about a trifle, of course. Or perhaps not. It is easy to mock the foibles of others; rather harder to face up to our own.