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Book review: Talking About Death: A pastoral guide by Susan Walker

07 July 2023

Nick Goulding looks at apt advice for pastors

THE American polymath Benjamin Franklin wrote: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I would like to add an extra certainty: new books on death and dying.

This burgeoning market has been driven by a gradual acceptance in Western society that death, a taboo subject for many decades, is now more openly discussed, especially by those in the eventide of their lives, and their families and carers.

In Talking about Death, Susan Walker has produced a short personal and practical guide to the subject. This book differs from similar guides in that it addresses the premise that those who have grappled with the reality of their own mortality are more likely to be effective at ministering to those who are perimortem. Remember those pre-flight videos? In the event of failure of the plane’s oxygen supply, you should fit your own mask before assisting others to fit theirs.

To that end, the author provides helpful material for contemplation, discussion, and further reading. The introduction comprises a précis of biblical allusions to death and theological interpretations of the atonement. This sets the context for further practical considerations of the whole process of living with death, suffused with personal anecdotes and examples that complement and reinforce.

This should be essential reading for pastoral trainees — indeed, for anyone requiring a basic introduction to the subject. I found only minor irritations. The summaries at the end of chapters do not always fulfil that function, and there is some unwarranted repetition of statements and quotations. There are also omissions. I would have liked some discussion and examples of how people view their existence after death. This can be helpful to those ministering. Also, the author did not address the issue of donation of bodies for medical research. This is a topic often raised by the dying.

This book is a helpful gateway for people who wish to consider the reality of death, however uncomfortable that may be. Death has been medicalised and sanitised to the point that many people in the UK will never see a real dead body during their entire lifetime. If anything, they are immunised against the reality of dying through daily encounters with vicarious death on TV. Murder mysteries and crime-scene investigations abound. They are popular, but can desensitise the viewer from considering the true impact of their own death and that of those they love. Here is an antidote.

The Revd Nick Goulding is Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology and Medical Education at Queen Mary University of London.


Talking About Death: A pastoral guide
Susan Walker
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69

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