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Opinion: The Church should talk more clearly about death and eternal destiny

13 November 2023

Direct cremations and secular funerals leave deep questions unanswered, says Stephen Tucker


“And Death put down his book” (“A Summer Night”, W. H. Auden)

IN RETIREMENT, I have discovered that television commercials can tell us a great deal about changes in our way of life.

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a multiplication of adverts for cremation services. The key themes of such adverts are that funerals are sad and expensive, and make too much fuss about the dead person. It’s cheaper and more fitting for the body to be taken away and cremated without ceremony or congregation, while the mourners have a party to celebrate the life of their loved one.

Of course, secular funerals have been provided for some time now, without any involvement by churches or their ministers; but these adverts mark a further significant change. What they leave out, apart from any gathering around the coffin, is the idea that people might be afraid of dying, that the bereaved might feel a deep grief, that they might have complex feelings about the dead parent or relative, and that we might all look back on our lives with a sense of failure and wrongdoing, as well as gratitude.

FUNERALS are, of course, expensive, and it may be that churches that can afford to should set up deanery-wide funds to give help in paying for funerals.

A government report, published in 2019, showed that large annual price increases occur in the funeral industry, which cannot be justified by underlying increases in cost.

Profit margins achieved by the largest suppliers in the industry have been high by international standards. The provision of crematoria is now increasingly a commercial enterprise, focused on providing revenue growth and high returns to shareholders and investors. In such circumstances, it might be that funeral services should be nationalised, as they are in Vienna, perhaps as a subdivision of the NHS.

A recent report published by the think tank Theos, Ashes to Ashes: Beliefs, trends, and practices in dying, death, and the afterlife (News, 21 April), provides a helpful study of the way in which the pandemic has, to some extent, made people more willing to talk about death, about their understanding of a good death, and their beliefs or lack of them about an afterlife.

On the other hand, the report quoted research from 2021 which suggested that only 14 per cent of Britons had expressed their end-of-life preferences and wishes, which might explain the frequency of the advertisements referred to above. It also seems, the report says, that faith leaders and believers have a “diverse and amorphous” understanding of what we should expect beyond our dying.

SO, WHERE might we begin in reversing such diversity? Current discussion seems preoccupied with the idea of heaven (which more people seem to believe in than in God), or with the impossibility of life beyond death, because contemporary neuroscience has established that mind and body are a psychosomatic unity; so, when we die, it is argued, no part of us can survive.

From a credal point of view, such issues seem the wrong place to start. We cannot, as Christians, talk about death without talking about God. A creator God is surely capable of recreating us in some form where we have self-consciousness and memory. A loving creator would not choose to see his work destroyed.

And, before heaven, there is that meeting with God which Newman described in the words “O happy, suffering soul, consumed yet quickened by the glance of God” — an encounter which Elgar found it almost impossible to describe musically in his setting of The Dream of Gerontius.

St Paul puts it this way: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13.12) (Mirrors, in Paul’s day, were made of polished metal and often gave a dim reflection.)

Whatever else we may believe, at the heart of all our belief about death must lie the expectation of being in God’s presence more fully than we have ever known in this life. And, in his presence, we shall know ourselves as he knows us. That is what is really meant by final judgement.

Judgement is a difficult word, because it conjures up the image of a courtroom and a judge passing sentence. But our final encounter with God is not to be thought of in those impersonal terms. Judgement means seeing ourselves through God’s eyes: looking at the whole story of our lives through God’s eyes, with God’s compassion, mercy, truthfulness, and justice.

And, if we take responsibility for the whole story of our lives and accept God’s forgiveness and his love, then death shall have no dominion over us, and we shall rest in the presence of God.

Fr Tucker, a retired priest, is a trustee of the Society of Faith.

The Society is holding a day conference, “Death be not proud”, on Saturday 18 November. Details here. A few places are still available even though the deadline for registering has passed.

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