We don’t really like to talk about dying. It’s not a pleasant subject. Yesterday was Halloween and I wrote in my short message on Thursday that I don’t think we take Halloween seriously enough. As the Prayer book reminds us ‘in the midst of life we are in death’ but still we don’t really like to talk about dying.
Every day the BBC reminds us how many people are dying of Covid – but still we don’t talk about what that means. We can’t get past ; ‘In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster;’ we don’t seem able to go on to say : ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God – and they are at peace’. We don’t have a real and meaningful conversation about what dying is.
Over the past month the Houses of parliament have been discussing the ‘assisted dying bill’ – euthanasia – whether or not people should be allowed to end their own lives and whether or not doctors should be allowed to help them to do that. Both catholic and anglican bishops have opposed the bill, but even they haven’t talked much about dying.
Their opposition has been practical – protecting the vulnerable, making sure it is always the rare exception to the rule not the norm, stressing the importance of palliative care – but none of them have actually talked about what dying is. If ‘the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will ever touch them and they are at peace’ – well, isn’t that a good thing? Shouldn’t we want it rather than fear it?
But we do fear it. We fear the pain of it. We fear the indignity of it. We fear the finality of it. We don’t want to say goodbye to our families and friends knowing that we will never see them again. We want to watch the next generations in our families grow up – we want to be a part of their story. We don’t want to let go, we don’t want to be nothing: We don’t want to hear that our ‘days are as grass: As a flower of the field we flourish. The wind passes over it, and it is gone; And the place know it no-more’. It is a frightening thought. A sad thought. A difficult thought – we really don’t want to talk about dying.
And so religious people talk a fantasy sugary Disney world version about us all meeting up in the afterlife – about going to heaven as if it really is just sailing out over the horizon into another world where it never rains.
At funerals people choose that poem by Henry Scott Holland:
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was.
Or the poem by Elizabeth Fry:
Do not stand By my grave, and cry— I am not there, I did not die.
But they are wrong: Death is something. Nothing remains as it was. We do cry – because our loved ones are no longer there. They did die. That is the problem.
They died and their bodies were either cremated into fine ash and scattered in some special place, or they are buried underground where their bodies slowly rot away until only bone is left.
That is what happens to us when we die. We really don’t want to talk about it.
Two weeks ago I preached a sermon about the crucifixion and I threw in the rather odd line that
‘When we die, we will be a living memory in God’s eternal data-bank.’ That little sentence may have passed you by – it was on the last page, after all. But what I was trying to say – however hard it is for us to hear – is that life after death is not about us, it’s about God. It’s not about us moving on to a different place, it’s about us being where we already are and where we have always been while we are still alive – living in the mind and heart of God.
God is the one who holds all creation in being – and God loves us here and now – and when we die God carries on loving us in exactly the same way … there is no change in God. As Rowan Williams once said God isn’t a fickle lover who ‘kissed her little sister and forget his Clementine!’ once she had drowned in the foaming brine.
God’s hard-drive is infinite and eternal.
And so … as I ponder all these things, I remember when my mother died well over ten years ago. She was diagnosed suddenly with a type of Leukemia and went downhill very quickly. I remember visiting her in her hospital room. It was painted white – clinical – grey metal and plastic chairs, with oxygen, monitors and intravenous tubes all around. My mother hated it. She said it was like the waiting room for death. She said she felt as if she had failed the hosptial staff by not getting better. Every now and then, she said, a doctor would pop her or his head around the door to see if she had died yet. It was not a good experience. She didn’t leave her bed. The nurses washed her there. She went to the toilet in her bed. She was hanging on – just waiting to die.
Thankfully – eventually – they moved her out of hospital into a hospice. The room had flowery wallpaper and curtains. There were pictures on the wall. There was a cat who used to come and sit on her bed. The nurses laughed. Mum got out of bed and started washing herself again – going to the toilet. Sitting up. She remembered sitting at the bedside of a member of her church – Helen – in the same hospice when Helen was dying. She remembered that as she died she had been so calm, and peaceful, and that a bee had buzzed around the room. ‘Where O death is thy sting’ – my mum thought. Helen’s was a good death.
And now my mum was there in the same place. We were all allowed to visit her when we wanted. Sometimes we stayed the night. Gradually she began to slip in and out of consciousness. We played CDs of hymns and church choirs. We talked with her, over her, around her. On Saturday 3rd November – just about 14 years ago – mum started slipping away. I did the priestly thing. I anointed her with some spare olive oil from the kitchen. I absolved her and told her it was all right. Strangely she rallied and gave us all a few final instructions – that’s mums for you – and then she died. It was, I think, a good death. She is, I believe, in heaven. Although I don’t for one moment think she is walking around some heavenly National Trust property talking endlessly to my Great Grandmother, her mother! I think she is just where she has always been throughout her life – in the mind and heart of God. ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God’ – She was a woman of great faith, it is where she would want to be.
And so – to close – today, tomorrow and on Tuesday the Church keeps the great feasts of All Saints and All Souls.
All Saints day when we remember the great people who have gone before us, those who had great faith, those who inspired us, guided us, and in some cases those who died for their faith. We boldly proclaim that although they are not walking with us here on this earth in 2021 – they are alive and praying in the mind and heart of God.
And on All Souls day we will remember our own loved ones, our family and friends who have died. – Some were the great and the good – some were probably just the normal and the ordinary with good and bad bits. We pray for them, we remember them – for they too are alive and praying in the mind and heart of God.
And so – when I talk about death – if, for example, I am asked my opinion on the assisted suicide bill and euthanasia – I remain generally speaking opposed to it.
I want to say it’s all too much like bolting the door when the horse has fled. Instead we should be living our lives well here and now. We should be forgiving one another here and now, just as we have been forgiven here and now. We should be putting our lives in order day by day with one another and with God – right here and now. We should be living in the hand of God here and now, so that when that fateful day comes we will already be in the hands of the God we know, love and trust, and no torment shall touch us and we shall be at peace.
And I think society needs to help us all die a good death, not a quick death … . That is where our efforts should be.
so let me end with a hymn: A favourite of mine, and a definite funeral request. It’s the final chorale from St John’s Passion by Bach. After pages and pages of complicated orchestral parts, tricky and intricate choruses, and wonderful solo arias. After Jesus himself had died on the cross and has been lain peacefully to rest in the tomb.
The entire piece ends with the following words – a hymn tune – just one verse. They are the best.
Ah, Lord, your holy angel send, When at the last my life shall end, and take me home to Abraham’s embrace.
And while my body, in sleep’s chamber rests, no more in torment, or at pain’s behest,
So keep me safe till judgement day.
And then awake me from death’s cold place, My eyes with joy to see your face. O Son of God, my saviour blest.
Lord Jesus Christ, Lord hear my prayer, Lord hear my prayer, So I shall praise you for evermore!
The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington