Last Monday evening the ABC’s Q&A program featured a lengthy discussion on death and dying. Underlying those discussions was that death is one of those “unmentionable subjects” in our society.
One is tempted to ask, “Surely among Christians death is not an unmentionable subject?” The very next morning, after watching this program, one of our elderly ladies was talking to me about a certain hymn. She added that she had put that on her list of songs to be sung at her funeral. She wouldn’t have told me that if for her death had been an unmentionable subject. She was being realistic and was planning responsibly for the day of her departure.
And she is not unusual. For many years of my ministry I kept envelopes in the top drawer of my desk: names on the outside; inside some requested funeral details of the person whose name was on the front. Most people usually give that kind of information to their children, however sometimes the children are not Christians so the parent doesn’t entrust those details to their unbelieving children, so instead that information is given to the Pastor in readiness for that inevitable day that will come. All of this doesn’t sound much like death being an unmentionable subject among Christians.
But, sadly, I have had other experiences too. Perhaps the classic one was of a man in his mid eighties who had been told he had terminal cancer. I visited him and his wife and somewhere towards the close of the visit I asked whether they had made any funeral arrangements or had any wishes in that regard. There was a deadly silence (excuse the pun!). I could sense some discomfort so I finished the visit and departed. At my next visit the husband said to me, “At your last visit you really upset my wife and me.” When he saw me frown in puzzlement he explained that what had upset them was asking about funeral arrangements. I was dumbfounded. Here was a man who had been told that most likely he had only months to live and he didn’t want to discuss the subject of funerals. What particularly astounded me was that this man had been an elder in the church. Why are some people so reticent to talk about something that is so inevitable for all of us?
Fear – goes a long way to explaining our reticence to discuss this subject. We avoid what is painful and inevitable as well. Someone said on Q&A, “We all want to go to heaven but no one wants to die to get there.”
Furthermore it seems to me that advances in nursing care and medicine, and improved life-support systems, contribute to a greater avoidance of the subject. These developments have increased our life expectancy but they also help make death something even more alien to our everyday experience by taking it away from the arena of daily life. Death now increasingly happens in the sterile surroundings of a hospital emergency ward. Relatively few people die in the intimate and familiar surroundings of the home with family and friends. That is being countered to some extent by the hospice movement. There are organisations that provide a place where medical support is available but then in surroundings that are more congenial to spending our last moments with loved ones.
We can understand that people who have no faith in God and who don’t know Jesus would want to avoid this subject. Because above all, thinking of death invariably raises the matter of God – and us having to give an account of our life before His judgement seat. For Christians it is different. The gospel is the good news about Jesus who died and rose again to take the sting out of death for us. And forgiveness through Him now removes our fear of facing God.