What a liberating time! To talk openly about death, those issues which are generally taboo. How times have changed. Why are we so reticent to talk about death? Here are some thoughts I have gained recently.
Grief over the years
Fifteen percent of all babies died before their first birthday in the Victorian age, and with life expectancy of 42 years – the impact of death was commonplace then. Church rituals, with the strongly held faith of many, helped people to come to terms, helped them possibly even cope, as it gave them a structure. If someone died at home, the bereaved were faced with that stark reality with open coffins, even clocks stopped and mirrors covered (1). Mourning lasted 2 years, minimum. Queen Victoria set the tone for the obsessive celebration of grief: the Queen wore black clothing for the rest of her life after the death of her husband, Albert. I wondered whether the sheer enormous numbers of those who died in Word War 1, who never returned to loving families may have been a contributing cause for this lack of discussion around the subject.
Trench warfare, with mutilated bodies, shattered by shells or asphyxiated by gas, brought new horrors but grief was brief. The War Office decreed in 1915 that bodies were to be buried where they fell, there was no home burial permitted. With no body. a soldier might be reported as ‘missing’, and women were instructed to show the same courage as their husbands had shown – be brave. The Church, who once gave structure, could not reconcile the image of a loving God to one who would permit such atrocities. Churchill called for stoicism during the repeated attacks on the British Mainland during World War 2.
“The dark side of the blitz story was sanitized to sustain morale (2)”
People just wished to forget the horrors and tragedies of the World Wars, this coupled with economic depression, did little to aid discussion of death and the grieving process.
In the 1960s the funeral could then be followed by a cremation, which shortened the time for a family to grieve. Some would scatter the ashes of the departed in woodlands, possibly denying them a permanent place for mourning. The Hospice movement, starting in 1967, would prove beneficial as it aided families to prepare for bereavement, anticipating grief. This grief process started to become formalised, given structure despite the variation between people and that people tended to move to and from between phases rather than follow them in a somewhat linear fashion.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross gave her structure for grief as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance but added that “But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.” (3) Others would also give a description of the grief process, offering a metaphor of a ‘river of life’. It was Richard Wilson who depicted a ‘Whirlpool of Grief’ which graphically explained the sheer turmoil that could be experienced with grief (5).
I, personally, have found this ‘model’ useful. The plunging into the whirlpool, the cold shock upon entering resonates with my experience of the death of a family member. The ever changing feeling of being under control and then losing control seems to resemble ‘bobbing’ in and out of the swirling waters, often coming over my head. I am disoriented then swept back into the centre of the vortex to be ‘spat’ out yet again. Eventually, there’s a feeling of understanding, to a degree, being aware of the situation. Is this where I leave the whirlpool towards mourning and acceptance?
In more recent times grief has been expressed in different ways. The Hillsborough disaster when 96 football fans were killed in 1989 saw a significant change with the use of scarves, flowers and toys left in memory at the ground. This continued at the Dunblane aftermath in 1996 and most significantly with the funeral of the Princess of Wales, Princess Diana in the following year. People were being permitted opportunities to formally express their grief, often suppressed before.
We are seeing the increased use of the celebrant, rather than a church minister, to take the funeral ceremony. Carter suggests that if the minister doesn’t proselytize they could take non-religious funerals. (6)
What does the Church say of death?
The Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament would refer to Sheol, a place without God (7) and much comment relates to mourning. For God’s people, talk of the afterlife was a later understanding. The Psalms frequently speak of mourning and lamenting, with mentions of the tearing of clothes, wearing of sackcloth and the use of ashes on the body. Within the book of Job (5:26) and Ecclesiastes (3:2) we discern a fear of a premature death. In the Hebrew world there were 3 elements required for a ‘good death’:
- a long life : note the long lives of Noah and Abraham;
- leaving behind at least one son to continue the name of the family; and
- a good burial (8)
Hence, a life beyond death was only possible in that the family lineage continued.
Around 160 BCE, the Book of Maccabees states that “But for you there will be no resurrection” (9), suggestive that Greek influence has caused a change in the mindset of the Hebrews. In the Book of Daniel we also see reference (12:2) that ‘not all will rise‘.
In the New Testament the resurrection is a key aspect of belief, found in the call from the Thessalonians to Paul in his first letter. Paul reiterates this resurrection call in the first letter to the Corinthians (15:16-17) where without such belief, our faith is futile.
Our bodies will be transformed but importantly whereas currently our bodies are perishable they will be imperishable; where they are dishonoured they will be glorious; where they are weak they will be powerful; and where they are ‘physical’ they will be ‘spiritual’ (10).
The rapture, the promise that all Christians will rise to Heaven upon that last day when Christ returns, a focal point emanating from the protestant fundamentalist revival of the 1910-1915s, has accentuated our belief in bodily resurrection, albeit taking particular verses from the Bible probably out of context.
Where does this leave me?
I had the privilege of being with my Father when he died. I spent that last hour with him, speaking with him about all sorts of things. Discussing family links that had never been broached, explaining how I felt about what had happened and giving my Dad thanks for being there throughout. It was good to pray with him. I felt his hand grip when we prayed.
It was good to speak honestly and openly about where God has been and will also be: with us, walking alongside us – not towering upon high, lording upon us as a disdainful uninterested King, but one who dearly loves us. I said the prayers that are typically said as we near the end of life: that those who remain here ‘release’ what hold the family perceive to have upon our loved ones, that they may go if they wish. It was good to thank God for their life so far and for the comfort of awaiting arms, wrapping around them in love.
Then they died. That liminal moment when without medical intervention you know that they have taken their last breath.
To then have the time given by the nursing staff to sit with them and pray. Prayers of thanks for the times of pain, sadness and tears are no more, but now they are free from that misery. To know that they are with God, wherever Heaven may exist (11). It was for me the first step in getting closer to acceptance.
So today’s Death Café, run by the Todmorden Pushing Up Daisies, was also another step in moving forward, allowing myself to hear myself speak of my Dad, to gauge whether it was rational. I hope that more places would allow such discussion, to freely speak of death, not hide it under the covers but expose it as something we can approach. I wouldn’t add ‘without fear’ but, as a Christian, one who knows that we are cared for, loved and will always be: secure and loved by God.
(1) Carter, Marian., Dying to Live, (London: SCM Press, 2014), pp 71-73.
(2) Jalland., Pat., ‘Changing cultures of grief, 1850-1970; from Archbishop Tait to C.S.Lewis’, in Stephen Oliver, ed., Inside Grief, (London: SPCK, 2013), p. 63.
(3) Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth, On Grief and Grieving, (New York : Simon and Schuster Ltd, 2005), p. 7.
(4) Jalland., Pat., ‘Changing cultures of grief, 1850-1970; from Archbishop Tait to C.S.Lewis’, in Stephen Oliver, ed., Inside Grief, (London: SPCK, 2013), p. 52.
(5) Bob Spall, Stephen Callis, Loss, Bereavement and Grief : A Guide to Effective Caring, (Cheltenham : Stanley Thomas (Publishers Ltd), 1997), p. 71. Credit for graphic given to Dr Richard Wilson, Kingston Hospital
(6) Carter, Marian., Dying to Live, (London: SCM Press, 2014), p. 76.
(7) Psalm 88. 10-12
(8) Gooder, Paula., Heaven, (London: SPCK, 2011), p. 81.
(9) 2 Macc 7:14
(10) Gooder, Paula., Heaven, (London: SPCK, 2011), pp. 89-90.
(11) The Bible doesn’t say.