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Disrupting Death


Death is nothing at all, writes Henry Scott-Holland. It does not count…Nothing has happened…Everything remains exactly as it was.




This poem, originally published in 1909, remains surprisingly popular at funerals in the UK. Personalities and cultures may be dissimilar, but grief hits everyone hard; it is exhausting, painful and exposing. There is cold and numbness; even surrounded by fellow mourners, people feel very alone and locked in. And if death is nothing at all, why do we want to keep it at arm’s length? As Woody Allen observed: it’s not that I’m afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.


A 2023 poll by YouGov in conjunction with the think tank Theos found that 53% of Britons – more than half – do not want a funeral when they die. This is a statistic that stands up and strikes you in the face. Attending the funeral of someone we love is one of the most important things we can do for them. To dispense with it is to deprive those who grieve of a space in which to do it and where they can give thanks for the deceased. To abandon the funeral feels like the negation of a life, one that sits dissonantly with selfie culture, where we make ourselves central to the story we tell about the world. Something strange is going on.


As well as undisclosed anxiety about personal death, it may show the reduced importance of public ritual and liturgy in a secularising culture. This could create a vicious circle, where fewer conventional funerals make it harder to make sense of what is happening at death, leading to more distancing from death, and fewer funerals. Those polled, of course, must realise that it will be for the bereaved to make decisions over how the death is marked and that the polling figures would surely be higher when the question is whether we want to hold a funeral for the one who has died.


In the UK, there is a renewed public campaign to get Parliament to make assisted suicide legal. Public debate is usually focussed on specific, hard cases where people are suffering at the end of life, and seems to pay less attention to the implications of a change of law for specific cohorts of people, many of whose voices appear to count for less: older people and disabled people. Liberalising laws round issues like this often leads to a more permissive practice. The risks round those who are old and feel a burden, or whose dementia causes them to slip in and out of rationality, can end up being remaindered at great cost, in the desire to limit the terrible pain some suffer at the end of life.


Meanwhile, scientists are beginning to find ways of addressing the damage caused to human cells as we age, giving hope to some that these cells might be made young again. There is talk of huge extensions in individual life span, without thinking of the social implications of this. Leaving aside Susan Ertz’s quip: millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon, serious money is going into this. Rich, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors are taking a keen interest in developments. Having disrupted the economy, they have set their eye on disrupting death.


And yet, hasn’t death already been disrupted?


I am the resurrection and the life, says Jesus. This is an utterly breathtaking statement to make about yourself, and from a man whose body could never be produced by those who killed him to quash the growing rumours of his resurrection.


Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? says Paul, the man who set out to crush the followers of Jesus when they began telling others about the resurrection, and who ended up believing in that resurrection.


No-one should diminish the reality of death. The resurrection does not ask us to treat it trivially. But it tells us a new story about death. The Gospel is an open secret; it is hiding in plain sight.


As St Paul might have gone on to say, had he been a Silicon Valley type:


But thanks be to God, who disrupts death through our Lord Jesus Christ.


And yet it is more than a disruption; it is a complete obliteration.


Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)



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