Friday, May 22, 2015

Death, Social Unease and the English

The English are not at ease with one another socially: we do not talk to strangers, we do not know what to do with our hands when we meet people, we don’t know how to say goodbye, we don’t talk about money, we don’t ask personal questions, on trains we pretend other people don’t exist and that even we don’t exist, we even pretend we don’t know our neighbours enough to say hello to…. But we do talk about the weather to strangers as a very tentative way of making contact -  something Dr Johnson noted 250 years ago.

Relations with others are ruled by Venus, and in the UK chart we find Venus under siege from Mars, Saturn and Neptune. Saturn gives us our inhibition, Neptune our sense of being at a loss socially, and Mars-Neptune a corresponding aggression that easily surfaces under the influence of alcohol.

Venus rules our Ascendant in Libra, suggesting that underneath it all we are a social lot (I’ve often fancied that in truth people would love to be able to talk to each other on trains!) But again there is an affliction in the form of Uranus on the Ascendant: Uranus separates and disrupts, he does not understand the social rules, and also he disposits our Venus, creating a mutual reception. As a nation we are, therefore, socially Uranian: awkward, misfits, and of course eccentric!

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Because we are Uranian it does therefore mean we can also break the rules. Despite a thoroughly English middle class upbringing, I am also half Irish, so there are ways in which I am not as inhibited as many English people. I will sometimes complain in restaurants in a straightforward manner, for example, while those around me cringe: if you are English, you either mutter and do nothing, or you get aggressive with the poor waitress. And I will also talk naturally and openly with strangers. And what I find is that some English people respond, like they can’t take the 1st step, but are only too happy for the other person to do so. They will, in other words, break the rules. And others just can’t take it, they back off.  And then next time pretend they’ve never met you, which continues to piss me off. But it’s probably less personal than I take it to be. I  used to force my middle-class neighbour to acknowledge me in the street by saying hello in such a way that he couldn’t ignore me!

We cover up a lot of  our dis-ease with jokes and moaning (such as the weather being bad, or the train late), but we can’t do this at funerals. This inhibited, at-a-loss Venus rules the 8th House of Death. The natural ruler of the 8th, Pluto, makes no major aspects: we don’t know what to do with him.

In her book Watching the English (from which many of the above observations come), Kate Fox has this to say about the English at funerals:

Dispatching Rites

There are few rites of passage on Earth as stilted, uncomfortable and excruciatingly awkward as a typical English funeral.

The Humour-vivisection Rule

At funerals we are deprived of our primary social coping mechanism – our usual levels of humour and laughter being deemed inappropriate on such an officially sad occasion. At other times, we joke constantly about death, as we do about anything that frightens or disturbs us, but funerals are the one time when humour – or at least any humour beyond that which raises a wry, sad smile – would be disrespectful and out of place. Without it, we are left naked, unprotected, our social inadequacies exposed for all to see.

This is fascinating but painful to watch, like some cruel vivisectionist’s animal-behaviour experiment: observing the English at funerals feels like watching turtles deprived of their shells. Denied the use of our humour reflex, we seem horribly vulnerable, as though some vital social organ has been removed – which in effect it has. Humour is such an essential, hard-wired element of the English character that forbidding (or severely restricting) its use is the psychological equivalent of amputating our toes – we simply cannot function socially without humour. The English humour rules are ‘rules’ principally in the fourth sense of the term allowed by the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘the normal or usual state of things’. Like having toes. Or breathing. At funerals we are left bereft and helpless. No irony! No mockery! No teasing! No banter! No humorous understatement! No jokey wordplay or double entendres! How the hell are we supposed to communicate?

Earnestness-taboo Suspension and Tear-quotas

Not only are we not allowed to relieve tensions, break ice and generally self-medicate our chronic social dis-ease by making a joke out of everything, but we are expected to be solemn. Not only is humour drastically restricted, but earnestness, normally tabooed, is actively prescribed. We are supposed to say solemn, earnest, heartfelt things to the bereaved relatives, or respond to these things in a solemn, earnest, heartfelt way if we are the bereaved.

But not too heartfelt. This is only a limited, qualified suspension of the normal taboo on earnestness and sentimentality. Even those family and friends who are genuinely sad are not allowed to indulge in any cathartic weeping and wailing. Tears are permitted; a bit of quiet, unobtrusive sobbing and sniffing is acceptable, but the sort of anguished howling that is considered normal, and indeed expected, at funerals in many other cultures, would here be regarded as undignified and inappropriate. Even the socially approved quiet tears and sniffles become embarrassing and make people uncomfortable if excessively prolonged, and England is possibly the only culture in the world in which no tears at all is entirely normal and acceptable.

Most adult English males do not cry publicly at funerals; if their eyes do start to fill, they will usually brush the wetness away with a quick, angry gesture and ‘pull themselves together’. Although female relatives and friends are more likely to shed a few tears, failure to do so is not taken as a sign of callousness or absence of grief, providing a suitably sombre expression is maintained, broken only by an occasional ‘brave smile’. In fact, many will regard such restraint as admirable.

There may have been criticism of some members of the royal family for their ‘uncaring’ response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but no-one was surprised that her young sons shed only the most minimal, discreet tears at her funeral, having maintained their composure throughout the long walk behind her coffin, and indeed throughout almost all of the funeral service. They were commended for their bravery and dignity; their smiles and murmured thanks as they accepted the condolences of the crowds during a ‘walkabout’ were widely praised, and somehow far more poignant than any amount of uninhibited noisy sobbing.

The English do not measure grief in tears. Too many tears are regarded as somewhat self-indulgent, even a bit selfish and unfair. Grief-stricken relatives who do not cry, or cry only briefly, at a funeral are likely to be seen as showing great courtesy and consideration for others, putting on a brave face to reassure their guests, rather than demanding attention and comfort for themselves. To be more precise, and at the risk of getting into pea-counting mode again, my calculations indicate that the optimum tear-quota at an average English funeral is as follows:

Adult males (close relatives or very close friends of the deceased): One or two brief ‘eye-fillings’ during the service, brusquely brushed away. Brave smiles.

Adult males (other): None. But maintain sombre/sympathetic expression. Sad/concerned smiles.

Adult females (close relatives or very close friends): One or two short weeps during the service, with optional sniffles; occasional eye-filling, apologetically dabbed with hanky, in response to condolences. Brave smiles.

Adult females (other): None, or one eye-filling during service. Maintain sad/sympathetic expression. Sad/concerned smiles.

Male children (close relatives/friends): Unlimited if very young (under ten, say); older boys one weep during service. Brave smiles.

Male children (other): Same as for adult males (other).

Female children (close relatives/friends): Unlimited if very young; older girls roughly double adult female tear-quota. Brave smiles.

Female children (other): None required, but brief eye-filling/sniffing during service allowed.

Quite apart from any genuine grief we may be experiencing, the prohibition on humour, the suspension of the earnestness taboo and the tear-quotas make English funerals a highly unpleasant business. We are required to switch off our humour reflex, express emotions we do not feel, and suppress most of those we do feel. On top of all this, the English regard death itself as rather embarrassing and unseemly, something we prefer not to think or talk about. Our instinctive response to death is a form of denial – we try to ignore it and pretend it is not happening, but this is rather hard to do at a funeral.

Not surprisingly, we tend to become tongue-tied, stiff and uncomfortable. There are no universally agreed- upon stock phrases or gestures (particularly among the higher social classes, who regard comforting clich├ęs and platitudes as ‘common’) so we don’t know what to say to each other or what to do with our hands, resulting in a lot of mumbled so sorries, very sads and what can I says – and awkward embraces or wooden little arm-pats.

Although most funerals are vaguely ‘Christian’, this does not indicate any religious beliefs at all, so references to God or the afterlife are inappropriate unless one is absolutely sure of someone’s faith. If the deceased was over eighty (seventy-five at a pinch) we can mutter something about him or her having had a ‘good innings’ – and some gentle humour is permitted at the post-ceremony gathering – but otherwise we are reduced to mutely rueful head-shaking and meaningful heavy sighs.

Clergymen and others delivering formal eulogies at funerals are lucky: they do have stock phrases they can use. Those used to describe the deceased person are a sort of code. It is forbidden to speak ill of the dead, but everyone knows, for example, that ‘always the life and soul of the party’ is a euphemism for drunkenness; ‘didn’t suffer fools gladly’ is a polite way of calling the deceased a mean-spirited, grumpy old sod; ‘generous with her affections’ means she was a promiscuous tart; and ‘a confirmed bachelor’ has always meant he was gay.


Gilly said...

I find all these supposedly 'English' traits are much more true for the south of England - where I grew up - than the north - where I'm from, and living now. The North is generally much more open and friendly. People do speak to one another, they do chat to strangers and funerals are very much an occasion for humour. The north-south divide is very real and not just about economics. In very many ways, the North is another country; as different and divided from the south as the celtic fringe.

LotusLady9 said...

Very interesting. Your observations also ring true with some attitudes in the US as well. Doesn't Libra rising react by trying to control and balence by policing everyone's reactions to death?

mike said...

"Chuckles the Clown's Funeral" - the Mary Tyler Moore Show