The Month of the Dead
As descriptions of November go, it’s a pretty stark one. Perhaps more so when you know where I first heard it.
Aged 19, with some fellow undergraduates, I went to the Requiem for All Souls in Durham Cathedral. The service was sung by the Cathedral choir, including the boy choristers. The preacher, a Canon Residentiary, was famous for his eerie, sepulchral tones. His sermon at that service, began (adagio, with Pinteresque pauses):
November … (count three very slowly) … is the month …(count five equally slowly) … (now lower voice to a whisper, drop two octaves, and lean into the microphone) … OF ... THE ... D-E-A-D …
It was too much for one poor boy, who burst into tears and fled the stalls. I can’t remember the rest of the sermon, but the opening has never left me.
The preacher was right, of course. The combination of All Saints, All Souls, Armistice Day, Remembrance Sunday, and moving towards Advent with its themes of eschatology and judgement, place remembering the dead at the forefront of our thoughts, and our worship. At a seminar in the Divinity Faculty last week, a visiting scholar stated that clergy are experts in the business of death and dying. He spoke of how we are commissioned at our ordination to ‘prepare the dying for their death’. I have had the privilege of doing this often for those who are suffering with terminal illnesses, and the particular privilege of being with a number of people as they have died. But I wonder if November might force all of us, whatever our situation, to confront a fact we prefer to ignore. Since I started writing this piece, I am closer to my death than I was when I started. And since you started reading it, so are you. I have learned from experience that many people find it painful to talk about death: their own deaths, and, even worse, the deaths of those whom they love. It is hard. But I have also learned from experience that when people do, their fears can be transfigured into hope, and a comfort can be found which is otherwise elusive and unattainable.
As Christians, we have a particular take on this. In dying, He destroyed our death. In rising, He restored our life. We are dependent on image and metaphor, but find a conviction by faith that, with God, nothing is wasted; and that the promises of Christ are true.
This November, do not cease to find delight in living. But do not be afraid to confront your dying. It may be stark, and there may be tears – but there is nothing to fear in the month of the dead.