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franciscan - September 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

Facing Death

by Norman Ingram-Smith

There is something very final about being dead. To be dead is a state, to have died is an activity. I hope one day to be able to appreciate the fact that I have died, that I have gone through an activity en route to another state. To be dead rather suggests nothing more than decay, oblivion. The difference between being dead and just having died is the conquest of death by Jesus which we celebrate at Easter.

When companioning dying people I have always felt, at the moment of death, a going away rather than a snuffing out of life. The first time that I was asked to companion a dying person I spent a great deal of time preparing myself for what I then pictured to be a difficult matter. I thought about my attitude as I was to sit by his bed in that hospital ward. I rehearsed the words, both of my own and of scripture, that I would say to him as together we waited for him to be dead.

In the event I found his bed in the ward, pulled up a chair and settled myself ‘to do this thing’ as I saw it. I was still young enough at the time to think that my greatest contribution to any situation was bound to be wrapped in words. I started on this dying man. Barely had I begun when his fleshless hand came from under the bedclothes and he said to me, ‘There’s no need to talk – just holding my hand will do.’ Not very many minutes later, still smiling, he slipped from his body which would now be pronounced as being dead and the essential ‘him’ had crossed, by dying, into whatever state there is for those for whom Jesus conquered death.
As we kneel at the altar rail we hear the voice of the president saying the words, ‘The body of Christ keep you in eternal life.’ We are in Eternal life here and now. We don’t suddenly slip into it when we die. Our dying is just a stage along the journey which is eternal life. I have experienced what has felt like a glimpse of life-after-dying. Following an accident in a busy city street and kneeling in the gutter to cradle someone who was dearly loved, someone too injured to be moved, there came a most unusual experience. The sights and sounds all round seemed to disappear and love joined us close and gave us a particular silence. The faint scent of old-fashioned cabbage roses, which were her favourite, seemed to accompany her final dying, her moving on, kept in eternal life.

There are those who describe what are called ‘near death experiences’. They become ill and doctors relate to them later how their heart stopped beating for a measurable amount of time. They tell how they found themselves in a variety of situations ranging from ‘out of body looking down at the operation’ to walking in glorious pastoral scenes and meeting loved ones long dead. It is not possible to comment with authority on such experiences which are unique to the individual, other than to say that it always seems as if they experience what is their own expectation after dying. Our Lord is the only expert in this matter of life after death and he only told us that in his Father’s house are many mansions and he said, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow now.’ When Lazarus died Martha said to Jesus ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’ Clearly this was no ‘near death’ but the real thing. Strangely there is no description by Lazarus of what he experienced. Surely this would have been a noteworthy part of the account. In fact we know so much more about those people who had not died, the mourners.

The dying of someone leaves behind a series of emotions. Perhaps the most common is guilt. I could have done more; I might have said I loved her in words and not merely have assumed that she knew; maybe if I had been more attentive to what he was saying he would not have felt he had to take his own life. Anger is another emotion often associated with dying. Many is the wife I have heard saying, ‘Why did he have to go and leave me?’ as if to die was the choice of the cancer patient. I have known the sudden realisation of unpaid bills being used as the occasion for anger on the part of the bereaved. It can often appear that various emotions are used to diminish the degree of love for the deceased, to make it more bearable now that the bond is broken.
Just as there are many ways of showing love to a person who is alive so there are different ways of showing love to those who have died. There can be a quite new kind of loving which lacks a good deal of the possessiveness of what might be called ‘ordinary love’.

I remember helping to clear up a battlefield in Holland during the Second World War. There was much to be done that was unspeakable so there was a strong element of revulsion. How to come to terms with the human, the personal side of this activity? An army captain in charge of things had said that we must not think of the bodies as people. For myself I could only get through the handling of all this carnage by thinking in terms of people and of their relatives back home who would want there to have been love centred around these last rites. There was a duty of love placed on us by the facts of the situation. It was a very special kind of loving quite unlike anything I had experienced before. It was a love which still wells up on every Remembrance Sunday. You can’t love what is dead. You can love those who have died.

The attitude of death today is quite different from that which maintained in Victorian times. The Victorians sang about death: ‘Moisten poor Jim’s lips again and, mother, don’t you cry’ were the words of one very popular ballad about a dying miner. There were all sorts of rituals surrounding death. Blinds would be drawn; for the wealthy, straw would be strewn on the road to deaden the sound of cart wheels and horses feet; black bordered notepaper would invite people to the funeral; the servants, as well as the family, always wore black armbands; heavy black veils and heavy black clothes were essential and families were in mourning for many months. There was quite a death industry. Sex was never mentioned. Pregnant women were screened from view.

Today death is taboo and we sing about sex, we write books and films about it, it is discussed quite openly. Particularly in America you get the feeling that the very existence of death is denied except perhaps in the South where the understanding of life-after-death is more readily accepted. The twentieth century finds people concentrating more and more on the intervention of the medical world between people’s lives and their deaths. The worst thing that people can imagine for anyone is that they might die. The result can be that we find increasing numbers of old people with body and mind out of sync. I recall my mother being kept alive in the greatest indignity because to allow her to die with dignity at the age of 90 was still seen as a failure. It is as if we had never heard ‘It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless’ in John’s gospel. I have watched more than one old person whose mind appears to be alert but trapped in a body which no longer enables them to communicate. They almost writhe in frustration and one is left with the feeling that their very soul is in peril, sacrificed on the altar of the body.

We move along a very narrow, safe track in our thinking about death. It is a track defined in the main by a variety of fears. One such fear is that for some the prospect of death is greater than the reality of their life. Strangely there appear to me to be more suicides among people who are or have been wealthy than amongst the poor. There is that dreaded challenge, ‘Tell me one reason why I should not take my own life?’ Most often we think in terms of ‘the will to live’ which is in all of us. Quite often I suspect it is more a ‘fear to die’ which keeps people going. Christians can only view life and death as parts of a single continuum. To see the process of dying as a sort of cut-off point is to deny the eternal life in which the body and blood of Christ are keeping us, which is the assertion at every communion service.

We are familiar with the words ‘through him, and with him, and in him by the power of the Holy Spirit . . .’ Here we have the most comprehensive declaration of the spiritual nature of our life. Here is a oneness both with the Creator and with each other in terms other than the physical.

God is Spirit and because of this we are of necessity a part of him, as there is no edge, no limitation, to spirit just as there is no limitation or edge to love. The image of God is Spirit and in that we are made. I like to think that the degree of nourishment we give to the spirit while here on earth probably influences the degree of identity that we shall have once we have finished with our body.
When I retired I remember saying to someone that the next big event in my life would be my dying. She complained bitterly about this saying that it was a dreadful and depressing thing to say. Of course there are people I don’t want to leave on this earth, but equally there are people I hope I may meet hereafter who are waiting, as it were. Shall we one day find ourselves laughing at the way we went to such lengths to remain on this earth, which – in old age – gets less and less satisfactory, when there was awaiting our arrival such glory?

This raises the question most often put out as a challenge, when death is considered, and that is: ‘How do you know there is life after death?’ There are various reasons to be gleaned from the Bible. Jesus told us about the life after death. He said to the man crucified next to him that they would be together in his Father’s house. The Psalmist said, ‘If I climb up into heaven thou art there; if I go down to hell thou art there also.’ We can continue a trawl of Holy Scripture along these lines. I believe in life after death purely on a commercial basis. If I am right, I shall be prepared for it. If I am wrong, I shall not know so it won’t matter.

Ultimately any consideration of death leaves us just with the knowledge that no man saw the building of the New Jerusalem; the workmen crowded together; the unfinished walls and unpaved streets; no one heard the clink of trowel and pickaxe - it just came down from God out of heaven. And the One that sits upon the throne says, ‘Behold I make all things new.’ §

Norman Ingram-Smith was Director of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields Social Service Unit from 1965 to 1985. He now lives a busy retirement in Suffolk and keeps in touch with old clients, preaches and fulfils engagements.

 

 

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