IN THE moving documentary End Game, about a medical centre for palliative care in the United States, Dr Steve Pantilat says to a chaplain and a social worker: “I think it’s sick people who think about how they are going to live, and healthy people who think about how they are going to die.”
The subject of death and grief will often change the mood in a room, and leave those present feeling overwhelmed and often speechless. Although our own deaths, or the deaths of those whom we love, may preoccupy us, it may be difficult for us to think about death in positive terms.
While there are several reassuring verses in the Bible about God overcoming death with eternal life, for example Revelation 21.4, the stories in the Bible involving death often reinforce our fears.
For example, in the story of Lazarus, his death comes too soon, and we are told that Jesus wept and was “greatly disturbed”. Jesus then enters the tomb and performs a miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead. In the book of Job, God allows Satan to put Job’s faith to the test by causing him to suffer and his children to die. Job cries out to God in pain. The story of Job exemplifies our struggle to understand the problem of suffering and death. Even for Jesus, death is the ultimate sacrifice.
While the meaning of these stories points to a higher purpose and a deeper good, death is seen as something to avoid, and reinforces the perception that death scares and mystifies people. The inevitability of death, coupled with these fears, suggests that a more integrated approach to death during our lives might help a little towards demystifying it.
THERE are several religious traditions and beliefs around the world focused on death and mourning which have been created as a therapeutic process. The Jamaican observance of Nine-Night, for example, is a custom nine days before the burial. Family and friends celebrate the deceased with music and food.
Similarly, the Irish wake is a day of paying one’s last respects before the funeral. In Judaism, the burial takes place as soon as possible, sometimes on the same day as the death or a day after, followed, for close relatives, by Shiva, a seven-day period of mourning, which is included within Shloshim, the 30-day maximum period of mourning. Parents mourn for a year, and, every year on the anniversary of the day of death, mourners return to grieving in a formal way.
All Souls’ Day, observed in the Western Church on the day after All Saints’ Day, is an annual commemoration of all the faithful departed, including all those no longer remembered by name, as well as those whose names may be read out in church. (Those, apart from the saints, whose names are still remembered are usually commemorated on their anniversaries of death.) All Souls’ Day is kept in many Anglican churches. Remembrance Sunday, of course, relates more especially to those who have died in war.
These annual traditions recognise that it can take years to cope with grief, or for grief to begin to resolve itself. But, while many Anglican churches do the actual funeral and annual commemoration well, and ought to keep doing it, the question about the stages of mourning and the time that it takes to appreciate a person is about more than the trauma of death. For example, experiencing a slow death after a long-term illness can take time to process. Over time, grief tends to evolve.
CELEBRATION DAY is a new way of remembering those whom we have loved and lost. It is an annual national day when we can all pause, and find new and ongoing ways to remember and celebrate the lives of those who are no longer with us, and who have influenced and shaped us to be who we are today. This might include people close to us — for example, family or friends, or past generations of ancestors and role-models.
Celebration Day offers the simple thought: that, as individuals and as a society, we are enriched and empowered by keeping the lives of those who are important to us more present. People can remember and celebrate loved ones in any way that is personal, whether that is cooking a recipe handed down from a family member, taking a walk, listening to music, singing, gardening, looking through photos, or talking to others.
This year, Celebration Day takes place on Sunday 28 May. It is an inclusive day, open to everyone, within or outside of the Church, regardless of background, belief, and culture, and it offers an opportunity to be creative in our approach to remembering those who have died.
Given that we think about death so much, on 28 May, Celebration Day gives us all a chance to explore a different dimension to mourning the loss of life, and another way to help us see grief as a process — that, in grace, we might help others to carry their burdens, and to find strength and comfort in celebrating the impact of someone’s life. The offshoot is that we might even live with death better ourselves.
The Ven. Liz Adekunle, a former Archdeacon of Hackney in the diocese of London, is a presenter on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.