Thought for the Day - Canon Angela Tilby
Good morning. Yesterday on this programme there was an item about whether death should be a subject for discussion in schools. Much was said about the fear of death, and that no one has any real answer to what death is. This is Dying Matters Awareness week, an attempt to raise public recognition of the need to prepare emotionally for our own deaths and the deaths of our loved ones.
My first encounter with death happened when I was about three. We had elderly neighbours. Old Mr Petch used to come out of his front gate every morning wearing an ancient brown tweed coat and a hat pulled down over his face. He would walk painfully to the end of the road, to the post box, I think, and then back again. One day he didn’t come. I was told he was ill and then that he had died. Being relentlessly curious I pursued his widow with incredibly insensitive questions about where he had gone and whether she was upset. She answered me with extraordinary patience and forbearance, leaving my mother to point out that my questions might not be altogether welcome.
The fact is that I found the reality of death a shock. Mysterious, sharp – the Biblical phrase about the sting of death has always seemed to me to be absolutely right – but I also have to say as a child I found death in a strange way fascinating and awe inspiring. It was as though I had been let in on an appalling secret which I half wanted to talk about and I half wanted not ever to talk about because to do so would take away a mystery which I needed to contemplate in private. Of course I didn’t have the vocabulary for all this at the time and my sense of the strangeness of death went along quite happily with conventional pictures of heaven above the bright blue sky which were also part of my upbringing.
In a more agnostic culture than the one I grew up with it is a challenge to know how to talk meaningfully about something so enormous when we don’t really understand it. There is scepticism about the afterlife these days. But however sceptical people may be about heaven and hell, it always feels brutal to speak of the total extinction of personality, when the personality concerned is someone you know. Whatever we believe or don’t believe about life after death we tend to soften the language of finality, to resort to metaphor, to saying death is like this or like that. Yet death is not like anything. That is its majesty. As a priest who conducts funerals I find the language of faith, with poetry, music and acts of remembrance are what allow us to make the transition between life and death, to discover that death, though a change of state, is not the end of being.