How death becomes us

(Note: this was written in the week that Nelson Mandela was taken into hospital on the brink of what appeared to be imminent death, aged 94. He died six months later but this was my initial response to it.)

I once met a man who had been writing essays for many years. He told me that from time to time he would encounter a subject that was difficult to write because it was too personal or not personal enough or because it felt like there was nothing new to say. When that happens, he said, this is what I do: I write a personal anecdote, and some history, and an analogy.

1. My father would be just around 94 if he’d lived, but he died alone in a hospital in the middle of the night. I hadn’t been to visit him because I was young and hospitals were boring and I had homework. My father was no saint. He did nothing to better mankind and he only barely made the people who knew him happy, but he was my father and I loved him and in the minutes after he died someone stole the watch off his wrist. It took me a long time to forgive myself for not being there, but I learnt that being at a deathbed is something you do for yourself, not for the person dying. Even if I’d been there, he would still have died alone. It comes back afresh in moments throughout my life: my father has left me, and I am not safe any more.

2. Herodotus in his Histories describes the Massagetae, a Scythian tribe that lived east of the Caspian Sea, where Kazakhstan is today. They worshipped the sun and drank horse milk and honoured their elderly in a singular fashion. When a man reached old age his family threw him a party. They slaughtered cattle for the feast and then, with his full cooperation, they sacrificed the guest of honour. They cooked their father together with the beef and everyone ate from the same pot. In this way they partook of his strength and wisdom. They did him honour and ensured he would never leave them. It was considered a great tragedy when illness robbed a man of the honour of being sacrificed.

3. By the time Leo Tolstoy died in November 1910 he was perhaps the world’s first moral celebrity. He was a pacifist, an emancipator, a guru wearing a trademark shirt: a peasant’s smock that came to be called the Tolstokva. He had become a spiritual figure, revered as later Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela would be. He was known as the Saint of Yasnaya Polyana.

At the age of 82 Tolstoy took a train through the Russian countryside. He became ill and disembarked at a small station called Astapova. For 10 days, as he died in the stationmaster’s house, he became the centre of the first modern media circus. Reporters and photographers and newsreel cinematographers came like locusts across the steppes. There were no inns so trains were pulled up in sidings to house them all. Journalists sent off telegrams with minute-by-minute updates, and papers printed them in timeline sequences so that their front pages read like Twitter feeds. For 10 days the news was given to the dying of Leo Tolstoy. There were eulogies and denunciations and high-minded pleas for his privacy. There were prayers for his safe recovery and prayers to let him go in peace.

There were ugly scenes among the journalists. They squabbled and intruded on the sickroom. You can see footage on YouTube of Tolstoy in his deathbed, an old man dying beside faded floral wallpaper. Newspapers denounced the behaviour of their own journalists, then sent communiqués increasing their budgets and demanding more updates.

At a difficult time for Russia, Tolstoy became a symbol for people’s fears. Aleksander Blok wrote: ”While he is alive, the morning is still fresh and dewy, the vampires sleep. But if the sun sets, if father Tolstoy dies and the last genius leaves – what then?”

One version of Tolstoy’s last words has him saying: ”Remember there are many more people in the world than Tolstoy.” Another has him saying, ”I love everything.” Another has him mumbling incomprehensibly in a fever.

A father had died, and people respond to a father’s death in different ways. Some needed to prove they were worthy children. Others needed to assert their independence.

Perhaps our response to death is only ever really about ourselves.

Seven years later came the Russian revolution. The Bolsheviks claimed Tolstoy’s support; so did the Mensheviks. Others piously gave thanks he wasn’t there to see it. With time and the emergence of biographical details of Tolstoy the man, the spiritual cult of Tolstoy faded. No one insists he be a father any more, or needs him to be a saint.

When they turn to him now it is to read his stories, his miraculous books. In the end it was the work that lasted.

The Times, 14 June 2013