Trinity: "Death Is Nothing At All"

The Revd Brutus Green

Every now and again in the church a little unpaid job get pushed your way, which might be full of treats and delights - or a duty to be borne on your day off. Not long after I was ordained I was asked to be the secretary and treasurer of a small trust, mostly entailing taking minutes at an annual meeting and doing the accounts. You can imagine how I leapt at the opportunity. But the interest of the job was that the trust was set up in memory of Henry Scott Holland, who is perhaps most famous for a sermon often quoted at funerals. It reads:

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? ...All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

This very naturally expresses something that people feel when bereaved. But many clergy have come to hate it. They say that it perpetuates an illusion, that it prevents people from grieving by allowing them to cling to an unreality when really they need to let go. Back in the 19th Century it became fashionable to say that religion was the ‘opiate of the people’, a ‘crutch’, and this could be seen in that light: like Miss Haversham in her wedding dress, unable to move on, just getting weirder and meaner.

I like to be well informed, however, and so found the actual sermon, which was delivered in 1910 at St Paul’s, where he was a canon, on the death of King Edward VII. He begins by saying that there are two ways of regarding death that stand in ‘hopeless contradiction’. The second is the well known one that I just read. The first, though, is ‘the familiar and instinctive recoil from [death] as embodying the supreme and irrevocable disaster’:

Nothing leads up to it, nothing prepares for it. It simply traverses every line on which life runs, cutting across every hope on which life feeds, and every intention which gives life significance.  It makes all we do here meaningless and empty. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” … So stated it is inexplicable, so ruthless, so blundering— this death that we must die. It is the cruel ambush into which we are snared. It is the pit of destruction. It wrecks, it defeats, it shatters. Can any end be more untoward, more irrational than this? Its methods are so cruelly accidental, so wickedly fantastic and freakish. We can never tell when or how its blow will fall… There is no light or hope in the grave; there is no reason to be wrung out of it. Life is the only reality, the only truth. Death is mere blindness, mere negation. “Death cannot praise, Thee, O God; the grave cannot celebrate Thee. The living, the living, they can only praise Thee, as I do this day.”

I quote at length but, believe me, he is just getting started. Throughout the sermon Scott Holland alternates between the two ways we experience death, without downplaying the experience of either. Their only resolution he finds in the truth of the Gospel that promises out of the weakness of our bodies of death comes a more glorious body that will not decay. ‘As for the far beyond’, he writes ‘it may have its wonder and its joys. But we cannot be sure. “We know not now what we shall be.” If that black coffin were all, then, we should be left to these blind broodings. So that black coffin harbours its black secret. But over it and round it and about it the light of Whitsuntide sweeps in to scatter all our fears.’

Although, Scott Holland was careful to show both sides of how people experience death, I still think that those priests who find the ‘Death is nothing at all’ reading on its own a little saccharine are in fact not right. In a society that very successfully clinicalizes illness and hides away death, the reality of the prognosis and event of death are felt even harder. Death can seem like a failure, as in the expression ‘they lost the battle’, people find it uncomfortable to talk about directly, as Scott Holland says ‘nothing prepares for it’, and, as we speak of the terminally ill, it is felt in its extreme finality, the ‘end of the line’. And in such a world of science and doctors, where the body is treated as a machine gone wrong, where the psychology of grief-cycles is explained to us and we are processed through the medical, legal, ritual and therapeutical system, perhaps we do need to hear those words of hope, of connection, of comfort, of reconciliation again. We need to be reminded that we are not just machines whose battery lives at some arbitrary point run out, but whole creatures who are connected by a million invisible strands, who are remembered, who are loved; as Abraham Lincoln said: "Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality."

Death is both final and catastrophic, but also is not the end of the story and does not prevent a continuing connection with those we love, and the hope of resurrection.

Today’s readings might remind us of the same way in which people’s interpretation of events may conceal the truth of what is going on.

So David is on the whole presented as a poet and musician, a sensitive and godly man. He’s not always the brightest but he is handsome, athletic and certainly passionate - so much so that his first wife comes to despise him when she sees him ‘dancing before the Lord’ in an ephod - the ancient equivalent of the mini-skirt. (I always think of King David as a precursor to his namesake David Beckham.) For all this though, seeing Bathsheba bathing on the roof turns him to crimes which, if we’re honest, are little more than rape and murder, but which blinded by his own desires he manages to hide from his conscience. But then Nathan retells the story to David in an extremely sentimental way. The poor man with his little ewe lamb, brought up with his children, eating of his meagre fare, drinking from his cup and lying in his bosom like a daughter, only to be taken away by the rich man. Blackadder lovers might remember General Melchett’s lovely plump speckly pidgeon called Speckled Jim, which he hand reared from a chick and was his only childhood friend. And we hear something of the General’s sentencing of Blackadder to death by firing squad, when David cries out against the lamb-killer: ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die’. But sentiment apparently appeals to David and it’s only when Nathan retells the story to him from this angle that he actually sees what he has done. Such is our blindness to our own actions.

Similarly Jesus’ host, Simon, on seeing the fallen woman kiss and anoint his feet, immediately jumps to criticism. Perhaps it was his over-developed sense of propriety, perhaps guilt or misogyny, perhaps he was jealous of the woman in her intimacy with Jesus, but it is only again when Jesus tells a story from a different angle that the man understands. And perhaps, even more importantly, sees that this woman who knows exactly what she has done, has responded rightly, where he a wicked tax collector remains self-righteous and full of his own importance.

Both these stories are about repentance and conversion, but only after they turn to see themselves and the situation in a different way. Sometimes it’s only when we look at ourselves again, more closely, or have it pointed out to us, that we can see the wood from the trees. We may be too forgiving of ourselves as was the tax-collector and King David, we may not be forgiving enough. In these cases it is only by redescribing what has happened that we see the truth of the matter.

And that is also precisely what is going on in Henry Scott Holland’s sermon. Death is the ‘King of Terrors’, as the sermon is titled. Death is the inescapable horizon of our lives and cuts through it by taking the lives of those we love. It can make us feel worthless or pointless, certainly powerless. We cannot escape the reality that death has and will again ruin our peace and take people from us. Dressing it up in pretty language will not undo its fundamental violence. But if we hold fast to our values - that our lives are meaningful; that the love we have for one another is worth something more than animal attraction and instinct; that we are created for a reason; that God is love; that Christ has gone before us to show the way; then we can redescribe death as Scott Holland did. From an eternal perspective, death really is just a blip; if Christ is the resurrection and the life, then death is defeated.  This is the Gospel. Redescribing the world from the point of the victory of love. If our faith is true and we are not just some gross cosmic accident, then death really is nothing at all.