Earlier this week it was the first anniversary of the death of Paul O’Grady. He was a student at my college and also someone who I always felt quite an allegiance to. He was a staunch atheist and a politico and not afraid to express his opinions. His death was a bit strange for me. He wasn’t a particularly close friend, but he was someone I saw around quite a lot, that is more than many others in the college “community”. He was the first person I knew of my own age to die, which whilst it doesn’t sound much, specifically with many of the death rates of the world, felt very different for me. I had experienced grandparents dying but it simply wasn’t the same.
I guess many of my feelings about his death are tied to how college treated it. They were very cagey about it and they held a memorial service a few weeks later. Lots of his friends were Christian and I know that it helped them in the grieving process, but I did feel that some of the speeches (especially that made by the chaplain) were somewhat inappropriate. There was this very English atmosphere of apologising and championing a person, and when that championing entails a direct negation of his opposition to religion then I don’t think that it’s something I can go along with and support. Thankfully I have my own memories of Paul and had discussed a few metaphysical issues at length. Further to this, I couldn’t care whether ‘God’ agrees with us or not.
I think that my feelings towards the college were confirmed when they told some of Paul’s friends that they would not put money forward for some kind of memorial. Whilst college is in debt, I honestly think that this is the sort of thing that could benefit the student body over having quite so many formals in Easter Term, or producing high quality Chapel term-cards to be distributed to every student (most of them, in a place of education, place them straight in the recycling bin where they belong). There is now a memorial and it was funded by the students association. It’s a tree in the garden of 2 Adams Road. I thought to myself that next year I will be one of very few people left in college who actually knew Paul. It’s not as if the memories disappear but they certainly disperse and are contextualised in very different ways as people move on and away. For me, in the last year, it hasn’t really felt as if I’ve moved on in any real way, but this is almost certainly a result of the fact that I am still doing exactly what I was doing twelve months ago. I know that for many of Paul’s friends, his death has really influenced their lives, yet that idea of collectivity of experience can only fade into the distance.