Friday, July 8, 2022

How do we talk about death?

Trigger warning: Death, Suicide

This is a post I've be thinking about for a long time. The trouble has always been that someone I know has been struggling with the death of a loved one and so, in trying to be sensitive to their situation, I've chosen not to post it. 

But here we are. Death is inevitable.

So why is the church so bad at talking about it? 

I mean *really* talking about it. 

So many funerals, social media posts, or conversations about death and the most obvious word to use (death, died, or its cognates) is avoided. I grew up in, and was an Officer in, The Salvation Army where we spoke of people being "promoted to glory." Other euphemisms are used all the time (I can sense Monty Python skit coming on).


Why?

We don't need to do that. 

One of the earliest funerals I conducted was due to a death by suicide. I was forced to consider how I would handle this within the funeral. I read a text which provided me with a principal I have followed ever since.

You've got to mention it. 

As difficult as it may seem, and as counter-cultural as it may be (and really that's all it is), you've got to mention the cause of death. Indeed I would even say "say it and say it early." 

On that occasion the deceased was someone who lived very much on their own and so I simply stated that they "lived their own way and died their own way." Later I used the word "suicide" deliberately so that it was clear for all. 

As a principal I applied this into all funerals I lead. I would say something like "we are gathered here today as (name) has died from (cause of death) and we are grieving together."

There are good practical and emotional reasons for this. It names the "elephant in the room". This brings relief to those present, and this is particularly true in those funerals where the death has been hard (e.g. suicide, long sickness, death of a child). I've been quite amazed at some funerals where there is a coffin in the room that doesn't even get acknowledged! But there are strong theological reasons for using the word "death/died".

Death has been defeated! In the words of Paul "Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?" (1 Cor 15:55). Avoiding naming death is to give it power that it no longer holds and no longer deserves. Think about this in another way. We don't use a euphemism to describe Jesus dying on the cross ("Jesus passed away on the cross"). Why should we use them in describing other deaths?

What are your thoughts? I'd be interested to hear other people's experiences of times when the word "Death/died" was avoided. How did it feel? If you did it yourself, how come? Share a comment to continue the conversation. 

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. The importance for Christian minister to both recognise death and name it, is something that I believe should never be overlooked. In teaching about the funeral liturgy I often find myself using the phrase ‘we believe in death’, we do. In resurrection also , but in death. Death is real,stark and will happen to all of us. It also triggers all kinds of emotions which need to be acknowledged and the reality needs to be named. This is part of the pastoral reality of a funeral liturgy which, amongst other functions, should help people grieve.
    I was interested in your naming the cause of death, I can see the strong pastoral reasons for this but have not infrequently encountered funerals where at the time of the service the cause of death remains unknown and subject to investigation. I delayed the interment of the ashes of my own Uncle for a year after his death, so that the finality of knowing how he died could also be confirmed in a ritual moment with the family. So very conscious that this can not always be known .
    I would be interested to know how you deal with this difficult but occasional reality?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your comments Harvey. It's great to hear from you. My response would be to name the fact that we don't know. I haven't encountered this scenario but this would be my approach. Great question.

    ReplyDelete

Sermon: Luke 19:1-10

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it.” Jesus is on the move. It’s a journey that, according to Luke’s account of the gospel, ...