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Pain and Laughter

There are studies to show nearly everything these days. I have news feeds from two high-quality scientific journals aimed at the educated lay reader, and thus get two different takes on the recent press releases of the various scientific teams vying in the marketplace for grant money. But there is something I heard about recently through a different medium that as far as I know has not yet been studied in a scientifically rigorous way: a possible explanation for the high turnover of staff in hospital pediatric wards.

Medical professionals in general have to cope with a fair number of possible sources of stress. Among other things, they have to cope with the fact that many of their clients die, and that there is nothing they can do about it. Some take to cigarettes, some take to drink, nearly all of them take to the medical sub-culture of macabre humour. After all, if there is nothing else you can do about meaningless suffering and death, at least you can get a laugh out of it. And given how prone people are to laugh at the expense of what they fear and what hurts them, it seems likely that laughter even provides some kind of psychological protection.

But not even doctors can laugh at dying children. And in pediatric wards the staff turnover is higher than anywhere else in the medical professions. One factor, my car radio informed me, might be that the staff lack the protection afforded by the macabre jokes they would share elsewhere. Clearly, this cannot be the whole story, and equally clearly, research is necessary to find out just how important a factor it is. Meanwhile, I was reminded of Reading Municipal Cemetery.

A Nice Job, where you get a Lot of Fresh Air

In Europe and the Americas people have strange rituals surrounding death. Most dead people are buried in special plots of land set aside for the purpose some distance from any interesting part of town, and expensive pieces of rock with writing carved into them are placed above the rotting remains. This is the only shrine dedicated to the memory of the dead, and those wishing to visit it will have to go out of their way to get there. The ceremonial transport of the body to the cemetery and its burial there is organised by specialised companies. To increase the expense, the body is often subjected to a complicated process of partial pickling, after which it is painted to look alive, and is nearly always encased in a carefully-made wooden box, to delay still further its decomposition. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these measures have the purpose of isolating those still living as much as possible from the hard fact of death. All contact with the dead is taken over by professionals at the earliest possible moment, and when the professionals have written their impressive bills, the dead are left among themselves and out of the way.

But somebody has to do the weeding. So for eight weeks one summer, five or six students got up far too early every working day to fight the good fight against too much life in the home of the dead. Every day we oiled and fueled up the Hayters and the weedies (string trimmers, a.k.a. motor scythes, a.k.a. weed whackers) and went out to kill plants, accidentally explode vases, and send dusty old plastic flowers flying through the air.

There could be few places less well suited for inculcating respect for death and the dead into a young person than the municipal cemetery. The soulless lines of back-to-back gravestones with the machine-ground greetings-card sentiments perfectly placed on their high-gloss surfaces divided the pesticide-soaked lawn into strips broad enough to drive a tractor down to mow it. The grave from the last funeral was filled in with the earth from the grave for the next one, the mechanical digger adding to the pressure on the polished hardwood coffin enclosing last week's suicide six feet below it. This was just another form of industrialised waste-disposal, uglier and less environmentally friendly than a landfill or an incinerator.

But that was not the worst of it. No, there were the children as well.

Most people who have children, and many people who have not, would find it difficult to imagine anything worse than the death of a child. No words are sufficient. But the people who came to the most successful undertaker in Reading with their dead children were supplied with words, and we read them on their gravestones. I imagine a small book kept in a drawer and discretely offered to the speechless parents. It falls open at one page, because there is one inscription that is used again and again:

A tiny flower
Lent, not given
To bud on Earth
And bloom in heaven.

The grief of a parent was channeled into words of the poetic quality of a sub-standard Valentine's day card, and that not just once, but over and over again. The first time one of us saw a child's grave sullied with this betrayal of all honest human feeling, he pointed it out to the others silently. After a few more times, the response to a sighting was "here's another heavenly flower", or "another heavenly bloomer." At some point a "heavenly lender" was mentioned. Before the summer was over it had become "look, it's another heavenly blender."

Forgive us, oh you absent gods, we were in pain.

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