Woody Allen (or was it George Burns? Or was itFranklin?) famously said that the only two things we can be certain about in this life is death and taxes, but he was only half right. All Souls day is about two things, the two things that we can be certain about in life. Death and love. And we don’t talk about either any where near enough.
They are two very important parts of the job of a priest. We deal with end of life issues, and we act, or try to act, lovingly at all times. In fact, I would say that I consider myself something of a practitioner of the one, and something of an expert on the other. And lest you think the mortality rate in my church must be unusually high, you will be pleased to know it is love of which I am a practitioner. Actually that sounds a bit dodgy, now I’ve written it down, but you know what I mean.
So when it comes to my two areas of expertise, like everyone else who regards themselves as an expert on things, I get a bit narked about how these two things are portrayed in popular culture.
I get mildly irritated that love is so often the stuff of cheesy soaps and “happy ever after stories” – as though love means that life is never going to be interesting again. Actually I shouldn’t get narked, because that sort of love is really a completely different thing which just shares the word, and the word is not mine to control. “being in love” is a very different thing to the love which moves mountains, because it is more about how people make you feel, than about them themselves.
But love, that sort of love, quite literally, is all around. It’s in the media, in magazines, in stories, soaps, chat shows. A little too much for my taste.
When it comes to my other subject area of expertise, then we see sort of the opposite.
Death is something which is increasingly taboo in our society. You get accused of being morbid even in speaking about death, which is a sign I think of how unwell our attitude towards death is. It’s not morbid to talk about birth, so why is it morbid to talk about death? We are born, and we will die. That’s not morbid, that is fact.
But popular attitudes to death concern shock, and then forgetting about it. We never actually deal with grief. Well perhaps on the Archers, but rarely anywhere else.
I suppose in the days when families lived piled on top of one another, death was a familiar thing. Three or four generations living together, child mortality high, people knew what death looked like, they knew the rituals, how to behave, what to do, what it feels like. But today, death is hidden away in hospitals and nursing homes, it is a thing often surrounded not by family but by tubes and machinery.
These days we are in new territory, a new landscape. How should we feel when a parent of great age dies? DO we go with “they had a good innings”, or are we allowed to still feel shocked and upset? Should we feel unfairly treated if our life is not well into the eighties and beyond as is so often the case?
The number one reason I get for people no longer believing in god is that someone they loved died. Often a parent, in old age. The fact that someone can be shocked that old people die shows how insane out attitude to death has become.
The recent euthanasia debate characterised for me two very different attitudes towards death. I was struck that the positions I assumed people would hold were reversed. I would have thought that atheists, who believed that this life was all we had, would be the ones to try and keep life going at all odds, and that those who believed in an afterlife would have thought that a protracted and painful end was unnecessary. But actually, those arguing for euthanasia were generally those who did not believe in God.
I think that those two opposite viewpoints say something of how we come to terms with death.
It seems that those who do not believe in an afterlife and are pro Euthanasia seem to want to be able to control death – to do it in a manner of their choosing, when they are still in charge, a final act of will if you like.
But to Christians, the idea of death is that we enter into a mystery. Death is a mystery, an undiscovered country. Death is an event horizon, and we can never know what is on the other side, until we make the journey. It could be that there is nothing of course. We have no proof, after all. It could be something beyond our imagining. It is right that we should find it awesome and frightening, because it is so, so new. In Shakespeare’s words, “a sea change into something rich and strange”.
And that is in essence the difference. For atheists who are very pro euthanasia, it is a question of who gets to choose when the light is switched off. For Christians who are against it, it is a question of when God opens the door.
It is always going to be an open question as to whether death is the end or not. There has been and never will be proof in the scientific sense. We either believe in Jesus’ resurrection or we don’t, we either believe that souls are immortal or we don’t. But for me, in the feast of All souls, I find that thinking on them, we find the thing that does persuade me that there is something eternal about them and indeed about us. Which is the second thing we don’t talk about enough, love.
Whenever someone very close to me has died, amidst all the shock and sadness and ache for them, there is one thing, sometimes drowned out by all that, but never for long. One thing which lasts – two things in fact – my love for them, and their love for me. That lasts. And it lasts because it is what matters. Indeed, it is all that matters.
Grief and sorrow come to an end. Like all things in this changing world, grief itself will decay and diminish. It may take years, it may take until the end of our lives, but grief and sorrow are temporal things, rooted in time. Love is not. Love is not like material things. Love is not like gravity, it does not grow weaker when we are separated by distance. It does not grow weaker when we are separated by time. It does not grow weaker when we are separated by death.
And so love becomes for us something which operates counter to the laws we expect of this world. It points us to something beyond time, beyond materiality. It points us to the idea of timelessness, of eternity. The love of those we have known and loved but see no longer call us through that door, through that mystery of death, drawing us into something rich and strange.
There are many purposes to All Souls’ tide. We remember with love those who have gone. We honour their memory. We take time to affirm our hope that they are in the hands of God. But there is more to it than remembering loss and love. Because love works both ways.
All souls is a time when we give ourselves time and space to allow ourselves to be loved by those who live beyond the divide. To give those living souls who are still alive in their love for us the opportunity to tell us they love us. Love which is far too important to allow death to be a barrier. Because it is their love for us, those who are on a distant shore and in a greater light, which enables us to commit to the beautiful hope which is our faith.
Death is the greatest taboo of our age. It is the great mystery of our existence. We are right to be afraid, anxious. But in that ending, there is a truly beautiful hope. A hope which we believe because, quite literally, love is stronger than death.