THE former Superior of Mirfield, Fr Sylvanus Berry, once told me an edifying story about the death of one of the brethren. This Brother was dying of a neurological disease, and the community had cared for him until his condition was beyond their capacity.
Arrangements were then made to move him into a care home. The night before the move, the Brother died at peace in his own room. Fr Sylvanus commented that he regarded this as the consequence of the Brother’s perfect resignation to God’s will.
I was thinking of that this Easter, as I reflected on how many Christians seem to manage to time their deaths for the Easter season. Last year, a very old friend, the broadcaster Judy Merry, died on Easter Day, having been ill with a rare cancer for more than two years.
This year, a former Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, died on Easter Monday (Obituary, 28 April). He had just published The Way of Christ-Likeness: Being transformed by the liturgies of Lent, Holy Week and Easter (Canterbury Press). In this last book, he reflected on the way in which the liturgies of Easter take us through our encounters with death into the hope of a changed and risen life.
On Easter Saturday, Rachel Boulding, deputy editor of this paper, died of cancer at the age of 52 (Obituary, 28 April). She was the editor of this column, and she encouraged and supported me and others with warmth, wit, diplomacy, and skill. She had known perfectly well the course that her illness was likely to take, and her predictions were fulfilled to the letter.
I find the impeccable timing of these deaths incredibly moving and powerful. Perhaps we have more say than we might imagine in the timing of our departure from this world.
Dying “on time” is not such an unusual phenomenon. Many of us know of people who have “hung on” to see a grandchild born, or to celebrate an anniversary, and who have died shortly afterwards. To die in Holy Week or Eastertide is a blessing, and perhaps a consolation to those who are left.
As we get older, we begin to accumulate a great company of friends and companions who have crossed the River Jordan before us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once spoke of death as “the supreme festival on the road to freedom”. And Bishop Perham, in his book on the Lent and Easter liturgies, wrote: “The way of Christ goes with events, not exactly by rising above them or being dragged under by them, but going on being open and alive through them.”
That is what my departed friends are teaching me. May they rest in peace and rise in glory.