Related to this section ...

November 15, Bishop James: Good endings

Apparently surveys show that people’s most troubling and consistent fear is public speaking. Second on the list is not spiders - or the dark - but death. The American comedian Jerry Seinfeld has used this information to point out that, for the average person “if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the coffin than giving the eulogy.”!

Reading that made me think about ‘endings’ in general – and the end of life in particular. It’s something we all have to face, but which most of us prefer not to think about. As Woody Allen once famously remarked, “It’s not that I’m scared of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Having recently contributed a chapter on ‘Organ Donation’ to a little book called ‘At the end of the day’ I now find myself lecturing on ‘end of life’ matters at theological colleges and courses around the country. Last month I also took part in a couple of debates in the House of Lords on Palliative Care so the subject of our mortality has been at the forefront of my mind. Given that one day every single one of us will die (one statistic that doesn’t change!) what difference does or should being a Christian make?

In the first place it should make a difference to the way we prepare for death. By that I don’t just mean in the final hours, days, weeks or even years of our lives. I mean throughout our lives-because a ‘good death’ is firmly rooted in a ‘good life’. That was the essence of what used to be known in mediaeval times as ‘Ars Moriendi’ – the ‘art of dying’. The way you live, the sort of person you are, the beliefs and values which undergird your daily existence all contribute to the process of dying-which, in my case, is well under way and has been for years, at least from a biological point of view. Every choice I make, every little act of kindness I perform, every friendship I sustain is part of my preparation for that final moment when I will breathe my last breath and ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’.

But being a Christian doesn’t only determine how I prepare myself for death. It also influences the way in which I help other people prepare for theirs. That means, among many other things, being willing to talk openly about death and dying rather than-as so often happens in our society-avoiding it as a ‘taboo subject’. The ‘Funerals Project’ recently undertaken by the Church of England has been promoting conversations about death in families and congregations, using the rather imaginative title ‘Grave Talk’; and that initiative mirrors another which has less religious content but with the same aim, namely a series of ‘Death Cafés’ where you go not to die (!) but to talk about some of the issues surrounding death. More than 50% of people now die in hospital, and a significant proportion of our population have never seen a dead body. But, as we all know, ’In the midst of life we are in death’, and however long we now may live, that is a reality we must all confront.

Finally, being a Christian determines what I believe will happen after I’m dead. St. Paul wrote ‘For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain’; and what he meant by that was an assurance that death is not - as some maintain - the end of everything. In fact, my Christian conviction that I will one day be ‘raised with Christ’ and ‘know him as he knows me’ is what gives me Hope for the future, and Purpose in the present. Without that conviction, I would be very hard pressed to see any meaning in life - or death - at all.

Of course that doesn’t take away the very real and agonising pain of being parted by death from someone you love. Jesus himself experienced the grief of bereavement-and none of the Bible’s authors make light of death or dying. But the Christian message is abundantly clear, and it is one to which we all may cling: a message summed up in a little Latin tag inscribed over the chapel door in one crematorium I know. ‘Mors Janua Vitae’ it proclaims. ‘Death - the gateway to Life’.


James Newcome

The Bishop of Carlisle

  • Diocesan Director of Education announces retirement Posted Tuesday 10 September ...