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Most kind and gentle death

by
27 January 2023

Ted Harrison offers a reflection for Candlemas

Alamy

Simeon’s Song of Praise (1631) by Rembrandt (1606-69)

Simeon’s Song of Praise (1631) by Rembrandt (1606-69)

I REMEMBER, many years ago when my father was dying, how the words of the Nunc Dimittis came into my head as I sat by his bedside. I regret now that I did not say them out loud. My father, though no longer appearing conscious, might have heard them, and would immediately have recognised them from the evening office he had said daily for 50 years as a priest.

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” seem such appropriate words to accompany the death of a faithful servant after a long life. They were equally applicable, I thought more recently, when the Queen died.

Her death certificate simply states that she died of “old age”. Although dying of “old age” is not unusual, doctors do not often give it as the sole cause of a death. More frequently, an immediate description of the cause of death, couched in sombre medical language, appears on the death certificate.

Yet a 96-year-old woman dying peacefully, at the end of a long and dutiful life, with her daughter by her side, is not a medical event requiring a technical description. Perhaps in death the Queen will have prompted a renewed debate about how we approach and regard death, with lessons in particular for those of us in our later years.

 

FROM the moment of birth, we start to age. Built into the design of the human body is the fact that, over the decades, it grows, matures, and then fades in strength and capacity. Finally, unless prematurely cut short by violence or illness, life comes to an end when the physical body can no longer sustain itself.

The Bible gives us a lifespan of three score years and ten, and modern medicine and a healthy lifestyle can extend that by another decade or so. But all bodies have a “sell by” date. And then, when the life force has faded and departed, the organic matter from which our bodies are made decays, or is burned, and the elements return to the wider pool of matter from which new life is created. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. . .”

That is the science of death. The spirituality of death, however, remains veiled. Christians die in hope, not knowing exactly what to expect next but aware that death is not the end.

Judgement; heavenly reward; purgatory; eternal punishment; reunion with those we have loved; rising again at the end . . . there is much speculation. And yet, in the evening of life, such speculation is pointless. If one feels secure in God’s love and mercy, then reaching the end should hold no more terror than coming to the end of the day when sleep calls.

Yet contemplating death can be accompanied by a frisson of nervous anticipation. I remember when I left home to travel by myself, at the age of 17, to start my first term at university. As I waited on Exeter Station, leaving my childhood behind, I thought of the new life ahead of me with excitement tempered by the inevitable touch of anxiety about my step into the unknown. Death is a similar step into unknown territory, as we leave this life behind.

And detaching ourselves from the past is not easy. Like leaving the house to go on holiday, there are those nagging questions. Did I turn off the electric fire? Did I lock the door? Or, in the case of death, what have I left undone? Are my financial affairs in order? Are there relationships I need to mend before it is too late? Plus other worries over which one has no control. What will happen to my treasured possessions — will they be valued in the way I cherish them?

 

I HAVE reached an age when I know that the end of my earthly life is not far away. My body is weary, and I have overrun my biblically allotted span by several years, thanks to medical science: a renal transplant, and a heart pacemaker.

Yet where, like a condemned man knowing he is to be hanged at dawn, I once might have been terrified of the prospect of death being imminent, I now find my mind far more accepting of what will be. I have even found myself dozing in the afternoon, and wondering: “What if I don’t wake up?” It’s almost a soothing thought. I am astonished at how the human mind and spirit can adapt to evolving circumstances.

In old age, my mind has adjusted to facing the inevitable. I do not rage against the dying of the light, so why should others on my behalf? Scarce medical resources are far better used giving the young a future than the old a few more miserable months.

Perhaps we should encourage more doctors simply to write “old age” on a death certificate whenever appropriate. To try and ascribe to a specific cause the peaceful and natural death of someone who has lived a long, full life is, in some ways, to deny that death is a natural event.

Death in a car crash, or the premature death of a child through illness or accident, is not the way things should be. To reach the end of a long life is. It is what was ordained from the beginning — literally, “according to thy word”.

 

Ted Harrison is an artist and writer.

tedharrison.co.uk

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