My week had three encounters with that part of life that is probably still the biggest taboo of all – death. (And I didn’t go to hospital or visit a grieving family or conduct a funeral.) No, these encounters were more the ‘walk by’ ones – ones where I could easily stop, ‘turn around’ and go and do something else but because I had made a decision months ago, and because I have a friend, and because I have an interest, I kept going and looked at death from different angles.
Months ago I signed up to a day course for hospital chaplains about death from the perspective of funeral directors and the laws of this land. I thought of it as a quasi professional development day. I didn’t expect to learn much that was new but I did expect to gain an insight into how things ‘work’ here and that certainly happened. I also came away with a new appreciation of the care people bring to this area of life – and some up to date information – most notably that now in England only about 30% of funerals are classified as ‘religious’ – are conducted by clergy. (When I began my ministry in Australia, I understood that clergy conducted over 90% of funerals.) And the thing that sur-prised me the most? That on this day, the words that were most avoided by our presenters were ‘death’ and ‘dying’.
My friend has just written an article about not forgetting those who have died. It is about the Lutheran Confessions and the ‘saints’ and he suggests a new calendar ‘Down Under’ to help us observe and commemorate. (If you look at the Lutheran Service Book on pages xi-xiii you will see a North American influenced calendar.) We can become so caught up in our ‘here and now’ – and in that feel so lonely or isolated – that remembering those who have gone before us in the Church and how they experienced God’s grace in their situations which shaped how they behaved, gets us to see beyond the ‘here and now’ and lift our heads above a very close horizon. For Lutherans talking about ‘the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven’ ‘up in the stands cheering us on’ can seem too close to Rome but they are part of our life as Christians (says the Lutheran Confessions). Nevertheless to ‘go there’ means stepping that bit closer to death.
The third thing this week for me is the taboo within the taboo. I often read plays rather than novels (my theatre background and all that I suppose) and I came across a production of a new play that is about suicide – attempted, having happened and the grief involved. Grief is hard enough but suicide grief … (I’ve contacted the playwright to see whether her script is published).
Sometimes death is in front of us on the path – unbidden, unwelcomed – there is no escape. Death tears at us, attacks us, as nothing else does. Sometimes death is ‘over the horizon’ or ‘on the sidelines’ and we can walk past. To walk towards it seems somewhat strange. And yet this week I find in myself not so much an interest or even a professional curiosity but an awareness that while death is so final in this world, it doesn’t have the last word. The power of death, for me, has been defeated and I find hope, comfort, and assurance all because of Jesus. Christianity’s foundation is death – Jesus’ death – but if that’s the end of the story then Christians are the biggest fools on the planet. Every time I stepped towards death this week I did so by the light of an empty tomb – and that helps me see what is going on in this world and what other people might be going through.