Doors slightly ajar, the Prime Minister was sleeping. It has been a long day, with a raucous Prime Minister Questions (PMQs) earlier in the day. Her Majesty’s Government was forced to make a U-turn on a landmark agricultural bill. Eyes flushed with fatigue, the Cabinet Secretary was standing over him. “Prime Minister, London Bridge is down.”
“London Bridge is down” is the code word for the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the world longest serving monarch. The Guardian newspaper revealed these plans, which were first drawn up in the 1960s and have been revised and polished two or three times every year since. This great rupture in British national life has been planned to the minute, and it will happen. The documents spell out in intricate details the response to the passing of the Queen. This is preneed (pre-planning), at a national and institutional level.
Responses to this piece in the Guardian are mixed. “dark and macabre and in bad taste [. . .] My queen is a voice of consistency and stability,” said one. Therein lies the problem. Nobody wants to speak about it. We have succumbed to a state of denial to the eventual passing of the Queen, and our own passing. The result is an enormous objection to even thinking about – let alone talking or writing about death. Death it seems, was a visitor, an unwanted and unwelcomed visitor. To many of us, death can wait. We avoid it.
Behind our “natural avoidance” of death lies a logical irrationality, a result of death being de-sanitized from our consciousness. The manner in which we grapple with our assured mortality is shaped by the circumstances in which [the thoughts of] death is/are hidden from us, the living. Life in the context of modern contemporary societies is prolonged and death is shelved. Death is a result of an accident; it has lost its “naturalness”. It is an artificial intrusion, traumatic when it occurs.
Death is certainly none of my business. It is someone else’s. Let’s speak about it in due course. When? Just not now. We prolong the conversation until we speak no more. We have lost most of our sensibilities towards death. Fear takes precedence. It engulfs us in an anxious cycle. We have become a hostage to our mortality. We forget about death and its centrality in our lives.
“London Bridge is down” is thus a golden opportunity to engage the issue of death in our own societies, communities and our respective lives. In fact, her mortality is an experience of our own dying. As Singapore nears the second anniversary of the passing of the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the Sabah earthquake that extinguished the flames in seven young children and their two teachers, let us step out from our stupor and confront death and its relevance in our lives without fear and reservation.
“London Bridge is down” is not only a code word for the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. It is also a series of elaborate, extensive and established protocols to respond to her eventual demise. But have we thought about whether “London Bridge” herself had been consulted on her own mortality. Has she sat down with her subjects to think through the most personal and public issue that is her death? Therein lies the twist and the most wicked of ironies in one of the world’s most elaborate preneed arrangement, that the central character, the eventual deceased herself is omitted from it all. Death has been excluded from her life.
Her last, decided by another. This is her story and could very well be ours. The conversation has to begin right away.