The Language of Death and Dying

Regular readers will know that I tend to be fairly straightforward about death and dying. ‘Brutally blunt’ was the term used by someone blessed with greater sensitivity, or perhaps a richer vocabulary, than I. The truth is, I have watched at the bedsides of too many people in their last hours to be squeamish about the process of dying, and my own illness forces me to contemplate my own death with as much regularity as the precepts of the Rule could desire. (As an aside, Benedict refers to death and judgement several times and exhorts the monk to keep death daily before his eyes, RB 4.47). Death, then, is no stranger; and though I do not think I would ever follow St Francis in calling it ‘Sister Death,’ I do not care for the various euphemisms we use to try to rob the word of its power. When I die, I shall die: I shall not ‘pass’ or ‘pass away’. Still less shall I ‘fall asleep’ or ‘lose my battle with cancer’. Does it matter? I think it does.

Traditionally, Christianity has always seen death as an entrance into the fullness of life. It is as much a part of life as being born, and just as precious. To be with someone in their last hours is a great privilege. Yes, it’s nice if the process of dying is attended with clean sheets, quietness and an absence of struggle, but often it isn’t. It can be messy, painful and as far removed from the idealised version as it is possible to be; but the moment when God comes to claim his own, when sin and failure fall away and the true beauty of the soul is glimpsed, is always a moment of sheer wonder. The power of God is active in a way we rarely advert to at other times, so we have no need to dress death up with circumlocutions as though it were somehow an affront to our humanity. It is the realisation of our humanity, the completion of our humanity.

Today, many will be recalling the anniversaries of those who have died. For those of us who lived through them, the events of 9/11 seem unforgettable, but memories fade, and the personal connections dissolve. I like the fact that Catholicism has never seen any need to distinguish between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the monastery, for example, every Hour of the Divine Office, every meal we eat, ends with a prayer for the souls of the faithful departed. We pray for ALL the faithful departed, not just those known to us. By that simple remembrance, we unite with those who have died, of course, but also with those who grieve and with those who have no words to form a prayer; and just as the words we sing or the food we eat are, so to say, a fleshly reality, so death itself becomes not an absence of life but truly part of it.

The language of death and dying is beautiful in its honesty and its starkness. Let us honour it and pray that we ourselves will meet death with courage and truthfulness when it comes. In the meantime, let us not shy away from it or try to pretend death doesn’t exist. It does, and we should rejoice in that fact — because where Christ has gone before, we hope to follow.

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