This is Dying Matters Awareness Week. I wish I'd known about it sooner. I became aware of it yesterday as I was reading the Catholic weekly The Tablet. This always excellent journal leads on the subject, and there is an excellent article by Rosie Harper, an Anglican priest, about helping people talk naturally about death.
This is what the week is intended to be about: recovering the importance of thinking about and discussing end-of-life matters: palliative care, dying, death, loss and grief. I say ‘recover’ because as we know, the difficulty we have in even naming some of these topics seems a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Our forebears did not stumble over facing the incontrovertible truth of the old tag memento mori. To remember the certainty of death and to reflect on dying well is all part of learning to live well, and not just well but happily.
The Dying Matters hashtag is #YODO: You Only Die Once. It’s good. I’m learning late in my life that the things we only do once are supremely worth investing time and effort in. Yesterday I was giving an address to school-leavers. I talked about how they might cross this unique threshold of becoming an adult with thankfulness, hope and joy. I linked it with my own imminent retirement, another threshold that carries significance for the whole of my working life, not just the few weeks that are left and whatever lies beyond. I spoke about (horrid word, but useful) mindfulness. If I’d been talking to fellow clergy or caring professionals I might have spoken about awareness or reflective practice. The words don’t matter. What 's important is that we draw on our emotional and spiritual intelligence to bear upon these life-changing passages we all have to negotiate.
This year’s Dying Matters theme is Talk, Plan, Live. The website says: ‘During the week, we will be encouraging members of the public to take five simple steps to make their end of life experience better, both for them and for their loved ones.’ These are: 1 Write your will; 2 Record your funeral wishes; 3 Plan your future care and support; 4 Consider registering as an organ donor; 5 Tell your loved ones your wishes.Here in Durham (and we are not alone), we have encouraged this approach to death by inviting members of the Cathedral Community to design their funeral rite, or as much of it as they wish, and deposit it in writing with the Precentor. We often have deeply-held desires about the shape of the service: where it should take place, who should be involved in it, the readings, music and hymns we would like, what is to happen to our body and so forth. This is of real help to shocked and grieving next of kin and to the ministers who support them. Unless incorporated in a legal will, our funeral wishes are not legally binding, but loved ones will almost always want to respect them. (And if we change our minds subsequently – i.e. not after death but before it! – we can amend as we wish.)
We only die once. It’s an event worth taking seriously. I’m not talking about ‘designer dying’ as if it were a lifestyle (deathstyle?) choice. I mean investing in dying as the culmination of living, a gateway that we hope to pass through with the dignity that belongs to a human being made in the image of God. The seventeenth century Bishop Jeremy Taylor famously called it Holy Dying. Here’s the reason we need to talk about it more. Death is not simply a solitary matter for each of us personally. It is communitarian. Apart from its public and civil aspects – recording it, investigating it if necessary, handling the succession in accordance with law – it’s an event that belongs to all our communities of love, trust and care: our family, our faith community, our neighbourhood and the institutions we have belonged to. In each case, ‘every man’s death diminishes me.’
Nothing can be more important than the way we say farewell and honouring the memories that are left behind. I always feel the chill in the Ash Wednesday words 'dust you are, and to dust you shall return', especially when I say them to children as I impose the ashes on their foreheads. But being mortal, with our existence bounded by a beginning and an ending, is something we can learn to celebrate for the focus it gives to the unique meaning of each precious human life.
It makes me wonder why the Church of England isn’t making much more of it – or perhaps I have missed something? This year, Dying Matters Awareness Week falls at the very end of the Easter season. What better time to meditate on death in the light of these Great Fifty Days, and Christian faith’s sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead?
Even at the grave we sing alleluia!
Even at the grave we sing alleluia!