Our collective immortality
20 September 2022
Over the last week many patients – I suspect, upon hearing my accent – have asked my opinion of the Queen.
This is out of character for Australia, as political issues seldom arise in hospitals. This behaviour is mostly driven by doctors who seem to share a suspicion of tradition, conservatism, and anything vaguely right-wing. Yet these patients don’t seem to see monarchy as a political issue, but rather a cultural one.
I suspect, like a lot of people, I found myself more moved than I expected by the death of our monarch. In particular, the scenes of her being laid in Westminster Hall to the choir singing Psalm 139 is a poignant and moving spectacle. This is not the place to repeat the words contained therein, but it is a psalm whose message is rooted in humility before a greater power. Perhaps this is why there is still a place for monarchy in an otherwise materialistic world. And (particularly) at a time of crisis, it is needed more than ever.
It is easy to get inured to the world. Each day in a hospital is a circus of tragedy and triumph in equal measure. We see people overcome terrible illnesses as well as those who succumb to them. We have rare moments where split-second decisions are the difference between life and death, mixed with much more abundant moments where decisions will probably make no real difference to the long-term outcome of patients. Sadly, after a while, human lives can become mundane.
There is consistency as we see these thousands of patients with different maladies, personalities, and prognoses – there is a certainty that one day it will be each of us in these hospital beds.
We do not know when, or which one, but we will each be wheeled through the entrance to the hospital and exit through the morgue. It might be in old age or youth, it might be cancer, organ failure, trauma, or something else, but one day it will be us staring back at the next generation of nurses and doctors who will laugh or cry at our presence, and forget us the next day.
This, amongst anything else, is why monarchy is so important and perhaps it should be viewed through such a lens (as much as any other). The inevitability of death which plagues each of us is distributed to monarchs as well.
What is more, the tragedy that affects our lives – loss, love, divorce, marriage – also affects those who are in the Royal Family. There is a difference here with celebrity culture. The latter shows our flaws in all their gaudy sordidness, often for personal gain. In the case of a monarchy, these flaws are shown as flaws and hopefully, with humility, these teach us that while we aspire to an ideal existence, we are all imperfect. Like in true art, we see fallibility and ugliness turned into beauty and meaning; celebrity culture – like modern art – shows ugliness for what it is.
Indeed, monarchy must be tied to some cultural ideals, such as duty or fidelity in marriage. Even if they fail at this (as we have seen), the ideal is still not abandoned – for without ideals or duty, a monarchy becomes celebrity.
In the monarchy we have those tragedies echoed in the ultimate sense. We feel the reality of death in our hearts and on our screens. The sight of the funeral entourage provides us the opportunity to reflect on our own lives and our own mortality. It also allows us the reality that rich or poor, we all eventually die. There is solace in that.
We could look at the state funeral as anachronistic and a misjudged waste of money during a time of crisis, or we could look at it as something for all of us, and a way that death is made real and bearable for each person in the country. We are not just animals who expire and are forgotten, as hospital experiences might have us believe, but there is tragedy and meaning in death which monarchy allows us to echo.
What is more, in a state funeral we see sorrow turned to beauty and loss turned into catharsis. The Stabat Mater by Pergolesi is an example of this, where the sorrow of a weeping mother can be felt in the music, but is turned into beauty at the hands of the composer. That is what culture can do – make the terrible into something uplifting. The sight of regalia, of order, and tradition with beautiful music playing in the halls of our ancestors, connects us both with our mortality as well as our collective immortality as humans. The combination encourages us to leave the world a better place than we arrived in it.
It is ultimately a Christian message of defeat turned to victory in death: the Queen is dead; long live the King!