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Be honest about the finality of death

15 August 2014

Talk of 'passing' reveals an over-spiritualised view that should be challenged, says Rachel Mann


Onwards and upwards: Assumption of the Virgin by Guido Reni

Onwards and upwards: Assumption of the Virgin by Guido Reni

ANYONE with an ear for language might have noticed a fashionable way of talking about death in our culture: rather than saying that a person has died, many people now say that they have "passed". An American contraction of the more familiar "passed on", it is not only commonly used on social media, but has been used in BBC reports, and is becoming common in everyday speech.

While there have always been countless euphemisms for death (Monty Python's Parrot Sketch lists many, for example), I want to suggest that the current fashion for claiming that the dead have "passed" indicates that society is becoming ever more frightened by the finality of death, and opting for a thoughtlessly spiritualised response to the Last Enemy. I sense that these shifts in language represent both a challenge to and an opportunity for the Church to meet people in their bleakest moments.

Ministry around death is one of the uniting features of clerical life in the Church of England. The C of E Statistics for Mission suggest that, in 2012, 34 per cent of all funerals in England were carried out according to Anglican rites. In the diocese of London, this figure was as low as 16 per cent, whereas in Hereford diocese it was 63 per cent.

These statistics indicate a long-term decline in Anglican funerals. In 2003, C of E clergy officiated at more than 200,000 funerals (out of about half a million deaths), yet by 2012, the Church had lost about 50,000 funerals over the years.

At an anecdotal level, however, the quickest way to get clergy talking is to get them to share funeral stories. It is tempting to suggest that the best way to throw balm on a group of warring clergy ready to fall out over sexuality, or women bishops, or whatever, is to get them going on about funerals.

A common refrain in such situations is how, on visits to the bereaved to plan funerals, the only person prepared to use the "D" word, death, is the priest him- or herself. Bereaved people will typically resort to any number of euphemisms to avoid the finality of that word. At one level, this is entirely comprehensible. Shock is a natural reaction to death, and - as creatures of language - we may be inclined to retreat to linguistic formulas that seem to soften its blow. As Voltaire noted, "One great use of words is to hide our thoughts."

I SENSE, however, that one of the imperatives on us as Christians is to be as honest as we can about death. Priests in particular are called to help people to prepare themselves and their families for death. Ironically, in an age when Christians are often parodied as "delusional", we have something powerful to offer, as people who can be models of realism.

Euphemisms can, paradoxically, serve to draw greater attention to that which they are meant to conceal. By being pastorally honest about the finality of death, priests and lay people may be agents in helping the bereaved to come to terms with the fact that, in this life at least, their loved ones are gone.

I am not suggesting that Christians should be crass or bumptious. I trust that we will always be sensitive to the sheer power of death to strip any of us of our certainties. But the quiet acknowledgement of the final nature of death may be significant pastorally and for mission.

In being willing to be clear that death has a shocking finality about it, Christians - as people who are committed to resurrection and new life - may be better placed to speak the good news of Christ. One thing that we should not be afraid of in our faith tradition is the bleak reality that God incarnate, Jesus Christ, actually died. He did not fall asleep or "pass over" or, to quote George Eliot, "join the choir invisible": he died, in an appalling way.

Resurrection is predicated on death. This is a powerful message in a culture in which technology and market economics have created the illusion that life and growth are almost endless. We live in an era marked by the economic belief in the endless possibility of growth and profits. Growth - admittedly often a sign of life - is taken to be always good. Yet Jesus invites us to remember that unless a kernel of wheat falls and dies, it remains a single seed. Jesus himself models a way of living abundantly which is predicated on the unavoidable reality of death.

In a culture where medical technologies have extended life in wealthy countries to unprecedented levels, Christianity retains a potent voice on the inescapability of death. At a time when Christianity (and indeed all faith) is often portrayed as unrealistic, there is a profound opportunity to speak into a society that seeks to isolate itself from the facts of human existence.

WE SHOULD be realistic, however, about what popular phrases such as "passing" tell us about the modern way of death. It is vital to meet the bereaved where they are.

Whether intended or not, the notion of "passing" or "passing away" is suggestive of a highly spiritualised understanding of death. To say that someone has "passed" implies a moving from one state of being to another, or from one world to another, spiritual one. The idea of a person's "passing away" implies that the soul or spirit has passed over to another place. It is the spiritual analogue of claims, found in some of the worst funeral doggerel, that death is entering another room or is nothing at all.

As has often been pointed out, this is not a classic Christian position on death and dying. Such views, including those of church

Fathers such as Irenaeus, Augustine, and Aquinas, have argued against a soul's or spirit's moving from one state to another.

The resurrection of the dead is as much a corporeal as a spiritual reality (Easter Feature, 28 March 2013). Many theologians have argued that resurrection of the dead, as a work of God's new creation, should be understood in terms of a general resurrection at the fulfilment of creation.

YET CHRISTIAN tradition offers an unexpected resource for understanding the modern fashion for talk of "passing" - the tradition of believing in the dormition, or the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven. While this tradition will be unattractive to many of a more Protestant position, the concept is helpful for grasping views about death.

In neither Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic understandings of the Blessed Virgin is it denied that Mary died. Equally, it is asserted in the West that Mary is "assumed", body and soul, into heaven, rather than that her spirit passes over.

Yet, despite the writings of theologians and popes, popular ideas have held that - because Mary is "sinless" - she did not really die, but "passed" to heaven. As the French theorist Julia Kristeva, in her striking essay on Mary, "Stabat Mater" (published in The Kristeva Reader, Blackwell, 1986), notes: "By freeing Mary from sin, she is freed also from death: Mary passes away in Dormition or Assumption."

You do not need to believe in Catholic or Orthodox teaching, or popular theology, to appreciate how Mary's passing away into heaven casts light on modern beliefs. In classic Christian theology, Mary is treated as unique; her sinless nature allows her privileged access to heaven.

In a highly individualised era, where each life is seen as special, it is not surprising that language historically reserved for Mary might become generalised. Mary's passing into glory becomes open to all. In a time that has become uncomfortable with the notion of sin, and death as "the wages of sin", it is almost as if, in talking about "passing", our culture wishes to assert that death can be bypassed.

Now, as the C of E has a declining, if still significant, ministry around the time of death, it faces new challenges in speaking authentically to a culture which seems increasingly uncomfortable with the realities of death. Yet, if we are to be authentic and faithful to the Good News, we are called to be both sensitive to the shock of mortality, yet trusting in the hope of resurrection. By being linguistically honest about death, we make a small, but vital contribution to hope.

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas's, Burnage, Manchester, and poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral. She is the author of Dazzling Darkness (Wild Goose, 2012) and The Risen Dust (Wild Goose, 2013).

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