Sermon for 16th November 2014
The lectionary requires us to continue with the sober themes that come up in the solemn season of All Saints, All Souls and Remembrance. So let’s start with Paul’s words to the Church in Thessalonica:
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night… But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober … For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
Paul is talking not about individual death but about the second coming of Christ, an event that he expected to happen very soon. In fact it seemed so imminent to him that he assumed most of his readers would be alive when it happened. But 2000 years later we read these words in a different context. While we still state in the creed that we believe Christ will come again in glory, we probably don’t give much thought to that unimaginable event. What we have to face, though, is our own death, of which we can be certain.
And Paul’s words are still relevant as we contemplate our mortality. We do not know when to expect death – it may come like a thief in the night. But through our baptism we are children of light, incorporated into the risen Body of Christ. We have no reason to be afraid. Whether we are dead or alive in this world, we live in Christ. So we stay awake and alert, ready for death whenever it may come, but not in fear or anxiety.
Some years ago when I took part in a ten-week course called Understanding Islam I learned the reason Muslims are not permitted to drink alcohol. It is not for any killjoy reasons. It so that they never run the risk of dying while inebriated, and facing God in an unfit state. They are to be clear-headed and ready for death and judgement at all times.
We may decide to run the risk, as Jesus himself did, of enjoying wine in abundance to celebrate a happy event. But the thinking behind the ban is worth considering. And it is not confined to Muslims. Roman Catholics, and many Anglicans too, around the world pray the Hail Mary regularly. The final line is Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. This prayer, recited probably more frequently even than the Lord’s Prayer during many centuries, reminds every Christian of whatever age that he or she is mortal.
Last Monday, just after preaching about death on Remembrance Sunday, I heard Andrew Marr, who spoke recently in this church about his new book, chair a discussion of death on Radio 4’s Start the Week. Among his guests was another person who has spoken at St Mary’s, the 97-year-old Diana Athill. She recalled being told at school that she should think about death every day for 15 minutes. As a result of this advice, she says, she has never been afraid of the subject.
The principal guest on the programme. was Dr Atul Gawande, a surgeon who has written a book called Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End. He will be this year’s Reith Lecturer, with his talks being broadcast from the 25th November at 9 am. He spoke about the way the modern world has moved away from acknowledgement of death, treating mortality like any other condition that we can delegate to doctors to take care of. But of course doctors can’t cure death, and they are ill-equipped to guide us along the final path when their medicines and treatments will ultimately fail.
Dr Gawande remarks that nowadays we think of a good life as a healthy and independent life. If we no longer have those goods, we give up the idea of living well. All we can think of to do is to give priority to the safety of the elderly and dependent.
And so we entrust them to institutions where safety is paramount, but where their autonomy and privacy may not be given priority.
Yet when we are old and frail, helpless and forgetful, we still need a purpose. We still need choices. If we are able to keep a pet, engage in politics, eat and drink with our friends, and practise our faith, we are likely to have much better mental health. And if, at any age, we are able to have meaningful conversations about how we want to die, we will be much happier when the time comes.
We tend to be embarrassed to raise the subject nowadays for fear of pulling down a cloud of doom, or of suggesting that the person we are talking to is getting dangerously close to the end. Well, the simple fact is that we are all dying, and none of us knows how far along the road to death we are. So we should keep the subject fresh and return to it regularly.
An interesting statistic is that in today’s secular Britain, of those born in the year 1970 only 30% say they believe in God, but nearly half believe in an afterlife. This striking bit of wishful thinking implies that though God may be dead, we are immortal – the exact opposite of what the Christian faith teaches. At church funerals the choir sings the Russian Kontakion, with the text: Thou only are immortal, the creator and maker of man: And we are mortal formed from the dust of earth, And unto earth we shall return.
But we are not encouraged to dwell on this fact, are we? Most of us live as though we will go on for ever, assuming that old age is a miserable part of life that we don’t want to think about until we have to. Yet research shows that people actually become happier and less prone to depression late in life. The focus shifts from material things to the quality of our relationships. And a really striking fact is that this shift doesn’t happen only in old age, but in those of any age who are facing a terminal diagnosis.
In other words, thinking about death is good for us and makes us happier.
But how do we start to do this? Many young and even not-so-young people nowadays have never seen a dead body or even attended a funeral. The old rituals that involved all ages, of laying out corpses in their own homes, praying round a body, processing a hearse through silent streets, joining in a sociable wake, have gone out the window. This movement away from acknowledging death has been going on for a long time.
The Reformation in the sixteenth century dismantled the institutions that remembered and prayed for dead loved ones. They were cut off from their living relatives, consigned to a realm beyond our reach. It was only the devastating numbers of young men killed in the First World War that started to bring the dead back into personal and ceremonial remembrance. It was at that time that the Church of England restored prayers for the dead to its liturgy in the face of deep pastoral need.
Today funerals are often awkward affairs. Families have never discussed death with their relative who died. They don’t know what they would have wanted, what they feared or hoped for. There is no established ritual for dealing with the fact of death. Just as we hand the sick and elderly over to doctors to deal with, so we ask funeral directors to make all the arrangements when someone has died.
But our own funeral is going to happen one day. As Anders Bergquist, the vicar of St Johns Wood, reminded some of us in a recent talk, it will be our last social occasion, just as our christening was our first. He listed seven other purposes of a funeral:
- Dispose of a body
- Help the bereaved to grieve
- Offer mutual comfort
- Celebrate and give thanks for a life
- Remind ourselves of our own mortality
- Commend the deceased to the love and mercy of God
- Proclaim the gospel, the hope of resurrection
Now when we substitute a secular celebration of a life for a Christian funeral, what do we lose in the process? There is no social occasion for the dead; the coffin is not present. The body is disposed of elsewhere. The occasion may remind us of our mortality but that point is not usually laboured. The bereaved are not much helped in their grief because they are instructed to celebrate. The life of the dead person is indeed celebrated, but there is no one to give thanks to or to commend the departed to. There is no love and mercy awaiting them, no hope of resurrection to proclaim. So of the eight things that a Christian funeral is designed to do, a secular memorial service provides perhaps one and a half: people comfort one another and celebrate the life of the deceased.
Now if we don’t want our well-meaning but uninstructed relatives to mark our passing in such a poverty-stricken fashion, we should perhaps think about our death now. We can talk to our families about what our priorities are, get busy with updating our will, planning our legacies and lodging our wishes for our way of dying and our funeral.
Vague statements like “I don’t want to die in hospital” or “I don’t want to be kept alive when I can’t enjoy myself” do not help. We need to be specific. The Radio 4 programme quoted one man whose father said, “As long as I can eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on television, that will be enough quality of life for me.” Those words helped his family to see value in his life later on when dementia had set in. They had had the talk about life and death when they needed to.
Why don’t we initiate these conversations with our elderly relatives and with our children? Death cafes are facilitating these conversations now, and the Church of England version, called Grave Talks, will start next year – watch this space for a local version!
Our deaths are not just our own business. We don’t have to buy into the cult of the independent self. Our lives may still have deep joy in them even when we are dependent or confused. Our death will matter to others, and we should not instruct our loved ones to celebrate or ignore our passing when they will need to grieve. But nor should we be afraid to face the moment that will come to us all like a thief in the night. We are not lonely stoics, fighting the dying of the light to the bitter end, but the children of God and heirs of eternal life, alive in Christ whether we are living or dead.