by Josie Smith.
Why do we think of death as sad news? Whatever the age and circumstances of the one who has died, it is announced as ‘sad news’. Sometimes it is the best possible news, releasing someone, however well-loved, from unbearable suffering. And if the person concerned has reached old age successfully and happily and then has – for example – a heart attack which leads to sudden death at eighty-odd, or ninety-odd or more, why is that ‘sad’? Is it not the natural conclusion of a life well lived, and should we not be able to accept that graciously?
There are many occasions when death is sad, as when a child dies, or someone dies as a result of an accident or a wilful act of their own or of someone else, and a life full of plans and promise is cut short. It is sad when mothers die leaving young children, or teenagers are introduced to a drug habit which kills them. But I hope that when I die (and statistically that can’t be far off) no-one will need to write ‘SAD’. One of my great-grandmothers lived into her nineties, had outlived all her generation, and said many times that she wanted to die. Her death was a release for her and for all who cared about her. Unlike her I don’t want to die – I am hugely enjoying even a restricted life and am full of gratitude for every day I wake up. But this life is finite, and fragile, and I am not afraid.
Isn’t it time that we as Christians took a lead in accepting death for what it is – the natural and normal ending of a human life which began when we were born and from then on had only one possible conclusion? If we did this we wouldn’t need to use expressions like ‘passed away’ or worse ‘passed’ (which is what one does with tests or examinations), but could say simply that s/he has died?
My sister and I went last year to a wonderful Service of Thanksgiving for an old friend we had both known since childhood. It followed cremation attended by close family only. At the service, in addition to the expected eulogy and hymns and prayers, there was a brass band playing joyful music, happy memories recalled by friends and relatives, a live link to America and Australia for family who now live there, and a PowerPoint presentation of pictures, from early childhood in black and white family-album photographs to recent video. He had been Lord Mayor of his city, and the final picture was of him in his mayoral robes, turning to the congregation and smiling as he doffed his tricorne hat to us with a theatrical bow. After which everyone adjourned for food and conversation. And laughter. The family had interpreted the man and his wishes in the most fitting way possible. He was, by the way, a Methodist Local Preacher.
Death, and the customs surrounding it, are fascinating. Ancient burial sites yield not just objects buried with the deceased, (suggesting perhaps a belief that he might need these again in a life beyond this one) but all sorts of information to the trained eye and to modern technology. The hot, dry weather of 2018 showed up hundreds of hitherto-unknown sites in this country from early or pre-history, only discernible from the air in crop marks. There is evidence in our country and around the world for the way people lived, who they were and where they came from, what they ate, what they made, and what they traded.
There is endless fascination in the development of tools and language and science – but also of belief. Last year I saw the Terracotta Warriors in Liverpool, and was horrified to learn at the exhibition that numbers of concubines were killed to accompany the Emperor through death and for his comfort in the next life.
My sister-in law died convinced that beyond death she would meet all the people she had loved in this life. My husband died with an open mind, not convinced of anything except that God who had sustained him all his life was not going to stop now. He said ‘I’m not afraid of death’ – it’s just that getting there is so difficult’.
Both Methodist Local Preachers…
What does our attitude to death say about what we believe?