A poor Indian slum-dweller lives an immeasurably more wretched, more miserable life than a bloated Western man can imagine. Yet that poor person is unlikely to be without company, in life as well as in death. She would be surrounded by family, relations and even neighbours. And she would not die alone.
Passing judgment on the former Prime Minister’s record is beside the point. The media’s cacophony already bores me. But the manner of her death says something important about the society the Iron Lady helped to forge.
Maggie Thatcher had two children. And some grandchildren. She lived in Eaton Square, Belgravia. One of London’s most elegant places, in a sober, sedate English way. Among its denizens are princes, magnates, film stars...Who were Maggie’s neighbours? Where were they? Would they even have dreamt of visiting the old lady living next door? ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’...Don’t the words ring like a sarcasm? An indictment, a condemnation of the way we live now?
The rich, someone said, are not just different. They are also indifferent. It looks that way.
All sorts of people may happen to die alone. Even the holiest. St Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit apostle of the East who saved thousands of thousands of souls, fell ill on an island offshore China. Forsaken by a cruel Portuguese captain, Francis Xavier died with only one Chinese companion, physically alone but spiritually accompanied by the prayers and the thoughts of innumerable converts and confreres. Angels and archangels, prophets, saints and the teeming host of the faithful departed, kept vigil by Francis’ deathbed.
Hermits too must have died alone. It was their choice. They fled a wicked world to be closer to Heaven. But lonely they were not. Like Francis Xavier, a multitude of angels would have hovered when God at last called them into his bosom.
In a fine devotional work, Holy Dying, the Anglican Caroline divine Jeremy Taylor considers spiritual matters about death. One chapter treats of ‘unreasonable fears in sickness’. Remarkable how fear of dying alone is not one of them. An oversight? Or perhaps because the largely agrarian England of this goodly writer’s time (1613-67) was still a communitarian society, bound together by ties of blood, kinship and, above all, Christian charity? Alas, the horrors of the civil war undermine that pious hypothesis. Those fervent believers fought and butchered each other with alacrity. Still, a lonely death was perhaps back then exceptional?
Maggie Thatcher believed in God. She was a Christian, from a Methodist background. During her later years she attended church on Sunday in the handsome Royal Chelsea Hospital chapel, one of the pensioners told me. Belgravia and the nearby Sloane Square area boast many fashionable churches. Did the clergy ever visit the old lady? Did they take an interest? Did they consider bringing her the sacrament? Praying with her? She definitely was in need of the ministrations of the Church!
What is it that makes many people, even without faith, fear dying a lonely death? After all, many today spend their lives alone, anyway. And death itself is not much invoked either. Certainly belief in a life beyond the grave, resurrection, judgment, these are minority, marginal concerns in post-Christian Britain. (Even clergy hardly preach about them, as if ashamed of being thought ‘unenlightened’.) What makes dying all alone so different?
It can’t be simply realising your life has been ill-spent or a failure. The lonely lady of my anecdote, despite her obscurity, had done much good work. Now the priest will share another story. After I had taken Communion to faithful people in a home, a nurse approached me. ‘A couple wish to speak to you.’ I obliged. Ushered into a room, I met them. Husband and wife. He in a wheelchair. Former Tory MP. A well-known personality, I won’t name him. He had all his marbles, she didn’t. ‘We are not sure why we are here’, he said. Their son, a barrister, phoned me up later. He asked me to visit his parents again. And I did. ‘I hope we won’t die here, all alone’, the man confided in me.
The couple were not destitute or lacking in relations. Nor had they been ‘unsuccessful’ by the world’s standards. But did their loved ones ‘love’ them? Care?
‘Why do you in Europe put your old ones away in those terrible prisons? Aren’t you ashamed?’ an Egyptian asked me in Cairo. Prisons? Couldn’t figure out what he meant until I twigged: he meant homes for the elderly. I tried to explain that modern professional people, given their lifestyle and career could not possibly accommodate their parents into their homes. He was unconvinced. So was I. The people of the messy, chaotic and yet intensely family-focussed tenements of Cairo have not sunk as low as civilised Western man.
Maggie Thatcher’s lonely death is startling. Not that the famous leader in God’s eyes merits more care or sympathy than my obscure old lady or indeed any other human being. Death is, after all, the great equaliser.
Nonetheless, it was a shame.