Not the cheeriest subject for this time of year – or any time of the year really, but a weekend’s training, curtailed somewhat into an intensive one-day session due to an outbreak of Norovirus at college, saw us gathering on a very cold and frosty morning in Diocesan Church House, Oxford to contemplate our own and other’s mortality and our responses, as part of our pastoral training.
Having to face death is part and parcel of being a priest; the initial contact to the bereaved, the nuts and bolts of organising a funeral service and the continuing pastoral support to all those affected are skills that can be taught but that can only be developed, unfortunately, through practice, which is always at the expense of someone’s grief.
We may therefore have expertise, but we will never truly be experts. So, hard as we might wish to, we can never honestly say that we know exactly what someone is going through or what they are feeling, as each person’s experience of the death of a loved one is unique. What we can do is to come alongside the bereaved, not shying away because we fear we’ll get it wrong and make things worse, but offering to listen or just to sit in the silence,
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away’
Accepting the reality of death for many people can be particularly hard and there are many euphemisms that are used to try to alleviate the finality of human life. Phrases such as the deceased having ‘passed away’ or ‘gone into the darkness’. Believing that they’ve ‘become a star’ or ‘gone to a better place, to be with Jesus or Granny’ etc. are all quite commonplace. Humour also features in sayings such as the cockney rhyming slang ‘brown bread’ for dead or ‘sleeping with the fishes’ with it’s undertones of Mafia involvement. It’s also interesting to discover the origin of some of these phrases; for example ‘kicked the bucket’ actually refers to the grotesque history of lynch mobs standing their victims on upturned buckets, which were then kicked away, or the more practical ‘popped their clogs,’ where the Lancastrian meaning of ‘popped’ equates to ‘pawned,’ so that in order to afford the funeral, the deceased’s family would place their clogs in hock until they could afford to redeem them!
However, death is a reality and needs to be faced, and as Christians we have something that offers a unique reassurance – a hope for the future. When we ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ – a euphemism courtesy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – we look to Christ’s promise of eternal life. Just how that will look can differ enormously depending on your theology; but one beautifully imaginative description of what this might be comes at the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, a book that is often considered an allegory of the Book of Revelation.
And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before
It was also important that we contemplated our own mortality so that we could become aware of our own thoughts and understanding about death because no-one is immune to the physical and emotional aspects of grief. Time spent in reflection enabled us to work through these attitudes in order that we can be better placed in the future to support those who will rely on us doing our ‘job’ both professionally and pastorally.
What is clear in all of this is that when death is not the end of life then death takes on a whole new meaning however it occurs
Death comes out of the shadows,
padding with stealthy footsteps;
like a thief in the night
to steal away life’s breath.
Death comes tumbling on the wind,
choking with gritty determination;
like a sudden desert sandstorm,
to obliterate hope and dreams.
Death comes with iron jaws,
lurking among the undergrowth;
like a hidden gin,
to bind and snare.
Death comes after sentence quashed,
counting the endless days;
like a prisoner of conscience ,
to bring welcome release.
Death comes in the shape of a cross,
like a lamb led to the slaughter
to redeem and bless humanity.