And as the feeling grows
She breathes flesh to my bones
And when love is dead
I’m loving angels instead

Angels, by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers

It’s more than twenty years since ‘Angels’ came out, but it is still in the Top Ten on the Co-Op’s Funeral Chart, and – despite humanist claims that we live in a secular age – many people believe they still exist. Robbie Williams has a lot to answer for.

The idea of a celestial being that intercedes with the gods on our behalf is a very ancient one. 

Angels first appeared in Zoroastrianism before going on to appear in all the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. By the fourth century AD, inspired by the ‘winged victories’ of classical Greece, they had grown swan-like wings, and by the fifth, there were so many that they had to be formally ranked in a hierarchy of celestial beings. 

The Church Fathers decided that there were nine orders; mere angels were at the bottom, going up through archangels, powers and dominions to the cherubim, who had four wings, and the seraphim, who had six. 

By the Renaissance, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino felt able to put the number of angels at a very precise 399,920,004, although neither he nor anyone since has been able to answer Thomas Aquinas’s question about how many of them can dance on the head of a pin

Angels are a staple of western art. In medieval paintings, their wings are often multi-coloured, although in the 15th century Ferrarese School, they are a modish jet black. They’re still very much with us today. 

We love Anthony Gormley’s vast steel sculpture Angel of the North, we thrill to the angels in the novels of Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman, and every Thursday evening throughout the first months of the Coronavirus pandemic, we clapped on our doorsteps at eight o’clock for the angels of the NHS.

We believe in angels because they speak to our emotions and many cultures cast birds in that role. You can see why: as many prisoners have wistfully observed through the bars of their cell, birds can go where we cannot, which may explain why for thousands of years not only were they were believed to be the transmigrating souls of the dead but they were also a part of funeral rites long before history began. 

It was in 1975 that archaeologists in Denmark excavated a Mesolithic hunter gatherer site called Vedbaek where they discovered a grave in which a woman and her baby had been laid to rest on the wing of a swan. Why did they do that? 

As the historian Neil Oliver wrote, “Was the bird’s wing there just for comfort’s sake, a lining placed in the grave by someone left behind who couldn’t bear the thought of his baby being cold? Or is it about a tiny soul taking flight, following the flocks of migratory birds towards a warmer place half remembered and far away?”

Throughout history, angels have signified many things. They have been a promise of help and a symbol of hope, a metaphor for goodness and compassion, an image of beauty, innocence and peace, but now they have become a symbol for the dead themselves. 

Sociologist Tony Walter first noticed this in 2009 when the reality TV star Jade Goody died. 

‘The Sun newspaper’s online memorial received 1106 tributes. Only 13 referred to ‘soul’, 9 of which were the formulaic ‘May your soul rest in peace’. But 167 referred to angels:- Jade being with the angels, entertaining them in death as she had previously entertained the living; and Jade becoming a guardian angel who could continue to look after her two little boys. Subsequently, I have noticed this language being used more and more, especially online, by those mourning a baby, young child, grandparent, a young peer – by mourners who themselves expect to live many decades. 

This fashion of picturing the dead as angels is new, and it is not formally taught… The idea that my child, peer or granddad is now an angel is co-constructed by mourners – a meme, an idea rapidly spread and developed online, a vernacular religion for an online age.’

Until comparatively recently, infant mortality was so high that our forebears were stoical about losing children: they had to be. 

In Victorian England, more than half the children born to working class families were dead by the age of five, and as their parents were expected to bear their grief without displaying their emotions, elaborate rituals developed. Newly dead children might be photographed in their casket alongside their family, and jewellery might be made from their hair, creating a memento as well as a route to channel their pain and sorrow. 

Today, the death of a child is the exception rather than the rule and funerals for babies are the hardest of all to do. No training can prepare you for the emotional impact and I can still remember my first, for baby Jet, only a few months after I’d been approved as a celebrant.

His parents, Kirsty and Kenny lived in a tied cottage on the Cauldstane Slap, way out on the Lang Whang, in the bleakest part of South Lanarkshire where the boggy soil is too acid to support any crop other than blackface sheep. It was late March, so winter hadn’t left. The sky was dark, a hard rain was falling and when I pulled up on the shoulder of the A70, the wind almost tore the door off my car. 

Inside the cottage, all was dark and quiet. Kirsty was hunched and pale, Kenny the same. Jet was their first child. Kirsty had suspected she was pregnant the previous July, but she wasn’t sure. None of the testing kits had worked so she and Kenny ran back and forth between Boots and Semi-Chem until they found one that did, and the positive result came as a wonderful surprise. They couldn’t believe it: they were so happy, they didn’t know what to do.

At first, they decided not to talk about it but it was only a few days before Kenny blurted the secret to Kirsty’s parents Moira and Stephen. They were equally surprised, but just as delighted.  Although Kirsty suffered a lot from morning sickness, the pregnancy went well, and she and Kenny used to play with Jet in her tummy. As she told me, ‘From the scans, we could see how Jet liked to waggle his bum at us, and I used to touch his hand through my skin, and feel him punch back in response’. 

Jet was overdue, and at the end of March Kirsty realised that he seemed to be sleepier than usual, so they went to the hospital where the staff tried to find his heartbeat, but there was nothing. It didn’t seem real. Although he was born still, he was gorgeous – a butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth boy, with dark hair, big feet and a rugby player’s shoulders. He would have made a great shepherd to carry on Hutcheson tradition. Kirsty said that when she first saw him she felt completely overwhelmed with love. 

As I said in the ceremony at the graveside, ‘It is difficult to accept the death of a child; after all, death does not belong at the beginning of life. It is an affront to the natural order of things; our children are meant to live on after us, creating the future. So today we not only mourn Jet’s forty-one weeks of life in his mother’s womb, but also his life that might have been. But short though it was, little Jet had a life and when he died, he was very much loved.’

There were no pallbearers for Jet: Kenny carried his tiny casket to the graveside in his arms, and I read the poem that he and Kirsty had written for their son.

You came into our lives for a brief moment.

Our hearts are full of love for you forever.

The days and nights that follow will never be the same.

You are missing from our lives,

But your heart and soul are with us.

We have put them in a special place, next to our own,

To hold each other, all three as one.

Always remembered, each and every day.

We love you son with all our hearts and souls,

Always with us forever more, 

you live on, never forgotten

And we love you more and more each and every day.

Our precious baby boy, Jet.

We love you, son, more than words can say.

The grief we feel for our children is the hardest of all to bear because it is always with us. What can make it even harder are the attitudes of those around us, as Nicola Welsh of the charity Held in Our Hearts knows only too well. 

Nicola lost her middle son Theo when he was just 3 weeks old, so she profoundly understands the heartbreak when a much loved and wanted baby dies. It wasn’t until after his younger brother Oscar was born that she learned of the existence of the charity (then called Sands Lothian) and trained as a befriender. Within a few years, she was made Chief Executive. As she says, “when you’ve lost your baby, there is no counselling or obvious support available via the NHS. We were left totally alone.”

While her peers were going to new mums and babies groups, Nicola was alone with her toddler and what she describes as feelings of “intense, scary and overwhelming grief”. She was desperate for professional help. The community midwife had visited for post-natal care, and she was lucky to have some good friends, but she was desperate to meet someone who had had the same experience. 

“Meeting other bereaved parents helps to validate your feelings,” she says. “It’s particularly difficult for parents of stillborn babies as there are no photographs or memories to draw on.” It was nine months until Nicola met someone else who had lost a baby, and she finally started to find some validation of her feelings. “You never heal completely,” she says. “That particular train has gone, and it leaves you standing on the platform waiting for the next train which is one of deep sadness. But you can shape where you want it to go by talking about it.”

Nicola says “If you know someone who has had a stillborn baby or lost a new-born, don’t be afraid. Always acknowledge the baby, name them and remember them. When you talk to a bereaved parent they may get upset …but that’s because you were brave enough to let them know that you remember. I’ve been fortunate in having good friends who still drop me a wee card or a text on Theo’s birthday every year.” 

She recognises that in our society people find it difficult to talk about babies who have died, but believes this needs to change. “I found a fantastic quote the other day: ‘When you say my child’s name you are not reminding me that they died. I know they died. What you are reminding me is that they lived, and that is the greatest gift.’” 

If you visit the Held in Our Hearts website, you’ll see that they invite people to get involved with the charity by knitting. There are Moses blankets, and crocheted blankets, knitted elephants for remembrance and of course, there are angel gowns as well.

Stitch one, purl one. Knit one with love.

The image of the Virgin and Child with Angels is from the Ferrarese School. The original is in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland and it is shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

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