During the recent covid 19 pandemic over 230,000 people died in the United Kingdom. For many in our communities death was at the door in a way that was almost unknown to a generation since the Second World War. Because of increased wealth, prosperity and freedom from major global conflict, and the astonishing advances in technology, we have pushed the ideas of death and dying to the edges of our existence. We have been fooled into believing we are somehow immune, somehow immortal. Some of us want to rile against the seeming injustice of being a frail human being. But there is something important about coming to terms with our own limitations, vulnerability, and weakness. In short; living in a way that makes us face the possibility of death is not necessarily a bad thing. The pandemic forced us to consider that any of us may die ‘before our time’.
we have pushed the ideas of death and dying to the edges of our existence.
Japanese theologian Hiromasa Mase says that, ‘in an age in which life can be manipulated our interest in protecting life grows stronger. But since death is the reverse side of life, why should we not talk about death without hesitation as part of life?'
Our understanding of death and our own approach to it reveals something of our way of being in the world. Let me share two funeral stories from my time as a priest in South Africa, which exemplify two distinct responses to death. The first, an English heritage white family from an upper middle-class suburb in a large city. I received a telephone call one morning to say that the father, in his late 50s, had died the previous day after a short but painful battle with cancer. The family was not connected to the church in any way. As might be imagined, his wife and two young adult children, both in their 20s, were devastated – bereft. In the phone call it was clear they wanted to sort out details quickly and precisely. “We don’t want the body in the church” they told me, “We don’t want to see him.” The unbearable thought of having to see their beloved sealed in a coffin was too much.
We can insulate ourselves from much pain and suffering but we all have to surrender to death.
The local Bishop had put a moratorium on having no coffin in the church so I gently suggested that it would be much better for emotional closure if the coffin were present. I don’t recall the final decision made, but seeing the body, even sealed in its fine oak veneer coffin, was psychologically and emotionally devastating. Death was something that happened to other people. This on one level is of course understandable but perhaps not helpful. We can insulate ourselves from much pain and suffering but we all have to surrender to death. When we pretend it’s a sort of slipping into the next room; ethereal, bodiless, and silent, we deceive ourselves entirely.
The second story recalls the death of a young Burundian man who had joined our congregation in Cape Town. Joseph, like many others, had escaped the civil war which began in 1993. He had travelled overland and had eventually reached Cape Town in 2006. The xenophobic riots in townships that took place across South Africa in 2008 saw Joseph and a number of others taking refuge in the church hall. He and his family settled in the congregation learning English and taking an active part in services. Joseph eventually found work driving a motorbike delivering medicines for a local chain of pharmacies. Tragically, one afternoon, Joseph was instantly killed in a head-on collision with a lorry. His death was a blow to the community. He left behind a beautiful wife, who was pregnant, and a small son.
The funeral, on a typically wet sideways-rain Cape Town afternoon, was loud and boisterous. The coffin arrived at the back of the church several hours before - an open casket as requested. They wanted to see the body. The community wanted to verify it really was Joseph. Without the body it would have been a farce for them. As the mourners flowed into the back of the building, many touched, kissed, and gently wept over him. They spoke to him, and put a hand on his chest as they conversed together, lurching between sobs and laughing in what seemed like seconds.
Joseph’s wife, let out a scream of loss and despair from the core of her being
The service began following the typical Anglican order I had taken many times before. At an appropriate point, a photo montage of Joseph was projected onto a large screen at the front of the church. The next moment I have indelibly fixed in my memory. Amani, Joseph’s wife, let out a scream of loss and despair from the core of her being which filled every corner of the building as she collapsed from the front pew on to her knees. A few women came to support her but didn’t rush her to her feet. Joseph was dead and the grief of that loss was all too apparent. Amani knew Joseph was dead. She didn’t push the reality of it away but faced it, however difficult, with her whole being.
We all live, in a way, on ‘borrowed breath’ that is God’s gift to give and withdraw. For many of us in the global North our affluence and relative peace has shielded us from death. Yet, ‘only as beings inseparable from death do people have an authentic way of living.’
Thinking differently about death is something that Christians can offer to the world.
Thinking differently about death is something that Christians can offer to the world. Christians don’t believe that death is the end, rather it is a whole new way of being. Christians believe that life continues in a new way in a new realm in the presence of God. And a vision of that is summed up in a text towards the end of the Bible. ‘God will come to make his home amongst his people and there will be no more tears.’ We need to recognise we will all die.
Talking about death can be very painful if the circumstances surrounding it are violent or tragic. The first funeral I ever took alone, after training, was of an 11 month old boy who had fallen into the family swimming pool when nobody was looking. I had no words. All the potential things I could have said stuck in my throat as cliché or meaningless verbiage. Silence and tears seemed to be the only currency.
Whatever the circumstances, many of us find it difficult to talk about death. Recent work from The Theos Think Tank has sensitively and beautifully given people a way of thinking through some of the common things that naturally occur when people are dying. Dr Kathryn Mannix says, “Dying, just like being born, is a process our bodies go through quite naturally with recognised phases that are pretty much the same for everyone.” Watch the short video to discover more.