Talking of death and dying is one of those conversation topics most of us prefer to avoid – and for good reason. No one wants to be reminded that our life has to end one day. It’s something we assign to the distant future – as far away as possible, in fact, so we can conveniently and hopefully forget that the day will ever arrive.
Even within church circles, Christians are often strangely reluctant to talk about death. This is especially odd when Christianity has as its central symbol the cross, which forcibly reminds us that ‘Christ has died’ and challenges us to ‘take up our cross’ – our dying – so that we might live. We can’t get around this by simply spiritualising those words and thereby hoping to overlook the reality of the deaths involved, both for Christ and ultimately for us.
An awareness of our inevitable death and our attitudes towards it ought to have a huge influence on how we live our lives now. We can’t have life without death, and ignoring or denying questions about death and dying is not only unhelpful but is an unhealthy response to God’s gift of life to us all. When St Benedict wrote his monastic rule for his followers in the sixth century, he included the line, ‘Keep death always before one’s eyes.’
‘Even Christians are often strangely reluctant to talk about death.’
This was not because he wanted them or us to be morbid killjoys but because by facing up to the natural boundary to our earthly life, we would be much more likely to use our time well and become daily more dependent on Christ, who holds ‘the keys of Death’ (Revelation 1:18).
Nevertheless, in western culture in particular, we prefer not to talk of death; ageing and terminal illness are largely off-limits. In our increasingly secular society, death is viewed as a defeat and a failure – a cause for despair, not hope. By contrast, the Christian faith does not give physical death the last word. Faith in God offers eternal life that goes beyond our bodily death, so there is hope. To talk about death before the end finally comes, whenever and however that happens, is therefore definitely part of our Christian discipleship.
We firmly believe that an intergenerational setting is exactly the place to talk about the hard questions of life. It is far too easy at such church ‘family’ gatherings simply to stay with the cosier and relatively easy stories linked to our faith – ones that don’t ask awkward questions or open up the big issues of existence.
And are we not surely in danger of being unfaithful to the gospel if we play down or, even worse, cut out all the hard sayings and difficult themes that are present in almost every Bible story?
If the good news is simply reduced to statements like ‘Pray and all will be well’ or ‘Don’t worry, God will make it right again’, we are being dishonest in our ministry and mission. It will mean that our children and their parents will grow up with an incomplete understanding of Christianity – one that has Photoshopped out challenging questions about suffering, pain, death and dying.
‘God is big enough to cope with our doubts and our fears.’
It is as if we think that God isn’t big enough to cope with our doubts and fears in these areas, or even that faith is no longer relevant when things turn out badly and the people we love aren’t healed but die. The truth is that those are exactly the moments when we need our faith to carry us through, yet that can only happen if we have been honest enough to talk about these things beforehand.
Death and dying need to become part of our shared conversations whenever we meet to celebrate God’s presence and when together we determine to listen to what God is saying to us. As we do this in an intergenerational setting, we are truly discipling each other and helping young and old into a mature faith that will last.
Talking about death with all ages
Thankfully, attitudes are slowly changing and it is encouraging that talk of death, in both secular and sacred settings, is becoming increasingly more common than it has been in the past. Bereavement support groups and ‘death cafés’ are being set up to address issues that formerly have been a social taboo.
Even so, our new conversation places in the west have often been constructed with only a particular age group in mind – usually those who are older and for whom matters of life and death are looming larger. The fact that questions of death and dying can be relevant to people of all ages has been forgotten and needs to be recognised and recovered.
It was there in the past when communities were smaller and more inward-looking. Indeed, some cultures continue to function in an intergenerational way when it comes to talking about death, such as the all-age experience of the wake in Eire or family groups gathering in graveyards on ‘the day of the dead’ in Central America or the Far East.
We are convinced that this all-age perspective is vital if we are to help each other talk about death and dying and face up to the big questions that these issues provoke. These are not just the concerns of older people but of the very young too, who ask the same questions but often in their own unique and sometimes very direct way.
‘These are not just the concerns of older people but of the very young too, who ask the same questions.’
As Christian communities, we should not shy away from these conversations but provide opportunities to think these things through with each other – something that will grow both our own faith and the faith of those we talk with, from the youngest child to the most elderly great-grandparent.
Children are natural questioners – it is part of their spiritual nature and surely one of the reasons why Jesus offers them to us as model disciples. Among those questions will be those that relate to pain and suffering, death and what happens afterwards.
For example, children very often ask questions about heaven, as all of you who work with children will have experienced! We shouldn’t back away from these questions but be ready to talk about them with children, not as those who have all the answers but as fellow seekers, prepared to acknowledge our uncertainties and questions honestly.
As we do this together, we will discover, as did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, that Jesus will come and walk alongside us, to help us understand the mysteries of life, death and resurrection.