One of the most interesting books I’ve ever read is the autobiography of the famous hangman Albert Pierrepoint, who was born in Bradford in 1905. He took what might have a ghoulish subject – “notorious criminals I have hanged” – and turned it into something thought-provoking and intelligent. And anyway: only a few of the hundreds of criminals he hanged were notorious. Many of them were just ordinary people who had never done anything unusual or interesting until the day they committed murder.
But it didn’t matter to Pierrepoint: whoever the prisoner was and whatever they had done, he carried out his job with the same care and professionalism. Hanging is a skilled business. An executioner has to judge the weight and strength of the prisoner, so that he can calculate just the right drop to break the neck cleanly and quickly. If the hangman doesn’t get it right and the drop is too short or too long, the prisoner can strangle slowly or have his head torn off.
Pierrepoint always got it right. That’s why he stayed in the job decade after decade, trusted by the authorities and respected by the staff of the prisons he visited with his black working-bag and his quiet air of calm and competence. Prisons can be cruel and uncaring places, and Pierrepoint’s work must have come as a relief to many of the prisoners he hanged. He sent them where earthly cares and troubles no longer matter. But Pierrepoint’s job didn’t stop after he operated the gallows. He and his assistant also had to ready the corpse for burial.
When he did this, he always insisted on one thing: that the corpse was treated with respect. There was to be no joking, no mistreatment, no matter how evil and depraved the prisoner’s crime had been. Pierrepoint described how he dismissed one assistant who had mistreated a corpse for laughs. This was one of the most thought-provoking parts of the book. Why do we feel the need to respect a dead body, even one of a criminal? Isn’t a corpse just an empty shell, something to dispose of, not something to care about?
Well, Pierrepoint didn’t feel like that, and neither have countless other people through all of recorded history and back into the dark and mysterious days of prehistory. We know from archaeology and palaeontology that human beings have been treating the dead with respect for many thousands of years. Whether it was the Pharaoh Tutankhamen entombed with glittering treasure and gorgeous art, or an anonymous Neanderthal child buried with handful of flowers and a necklace of shells, we know that people thought a dead body was an important thing. It was a symbol of both the life that had ended and of the afterlife that was to come.
But you don’t need to believe in an afterlife to respect the dead. Albert Pierrepoint’s autobiography does not talk a lot about spiritual matters and religion. Our strong feelings about the dead may be instinctive, not cultural, or may be perfectly natural in some other way. Even animals can be puzzled when life has left a body. Where has all the warmth, breath and movement gone? The solid flesh and heavy bones are still here, but a light has been extinguished, a golden cord severed for ever. Only brutal and unthinking people can be unmoved by death.