From life to death

A poem I wrote in 2018 (below – Where No Birds Sing) was inspired by the film ‘Journey’s end’, featuring the last moments of soldiers in WW1 trenches. Notice the lines of verse (6..5..4..3..2…..1): counting down to their last breaths. The film greatly affected me emotionally, but my poem also emulated the social class differences, still acted out to the end – though death was imminent (verses two and three).

When we die we all leave this world in the same way: we simply take our final breath. Our hearts stop beating. It is of little consequence or significance whether we are monarchy, lords, rich or poor, old or young, beautiful or ugly. Nor does death measure whether a person has been kind or cruel, good or bad, clever or with special needs. In death race fades into oblivion. All souls are the same colour – if they are any colour at all. It seems to me that once death takes us, every mind and every body becomes exactly the same. We are as dead leaves, fallen from the tree of life! 

So my question is why, throughout life, do humans strive to be so different? Or indeed, why does difference cause such tension and animosity? As we struggle with the challenges of living, why does competition often smother cooperation? In 1914, those  chains of social class still hung as yokes around necks, carried from long established tradition, when imagined differences between aristocracy and working class were thought to be important – even during war, as the grim reaper hovered. But are they still? Was not privilege merely an accident of birth: one that enabled greater chances in life? How far have we come towards so-called levelling up: allowing opportunities for those not born into the privileged class to climb the social ladder and improve their lives? 

My real point: does it matter which social class we inhabit during life? A resounding NO! Is the King (with his capital letter) more important than any of us? No. So let’s all be proud of who we are, whatever colour of skin we have, whatever brain power we have or whatever we have achieved in life. It’s not the end that matters, but the process of reaching it.

Do I believe in the soul? I am reserving judgement until my final moment. I will know when I need to know. But, in my imagined afterlife, I visualise a space into which we all pass through. In this space, candles, as eternal souls, glow in the darkness, casting shadows. Each candle is exactly the same size and shape, cylindrical, unadorned. Each burns at the same rate and casts the same intensity of light and shadow around this community of common, human souls. The candle wax never burns down, but remains constant. Do these souls communicate? Yes. Each flicker of candlelight carries meaning, contributing to the communal afterlife – in a silent place where all souls are the same. 

A final thought, as you read my poem: the trains carrying all our souls to their final resting place do not have first and second class compartments. 


Stinking of shit, they stand strong in ankle-high mud,              

In trenches, leaning against rotting wood, rusty metal.                                         

Stare, unseeing, across that charred and blackened place                       

A land once blessed with colour and nature’s bounty,                                                     

Before men had made it a space of still silence                               

Bleached greyness, trees stripped of seasons, where no birds sing.   

They wait! 

Dinner at eight! In the officers’ dug out, wine,                      

In fine, cut glass goblets – each hand raised to a toast.   

Soup made with water, and little else. ‘Pass the pepper.’     

Cutlets, of something. Nobody asks. Three apricots,             

Out of a tin, scraped up with spoons, from metal plates.                    

They wait!

Their men eat up top, hunched on a bench, dunk dry bread,     

In weak tea, laugh, talk of home – as smiles mask their fear.         

At this last supper, men with nothing in common                           

But hope, pen letters to loved ones so far away.               

And wait! 

The shells drop with an ear-splitting boom! Smoke! Choking!          

Silence! All breaths extinguished. Neither stench, nor mud,       

Nor rain, nor sun will bother them. Their time has come.         

But wait!

Their journey’s end? Listen! Wind gently whispers, hums,       

A hymn – accompanying souls to eternity.                               

They’re gone.

Nothing moves. Naked waste – lifeless as the moon, where,

No birds sing.

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