Lecture delivered to Class VI(2) at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, Bristol, 21 September 1989
My subject today is usually to be avoided in polite company, spoken of only in euphemisms as something not quite nice. Everybody does it, of course, yet it carries with it guilt, embarrassment, misinformation, sentiment and above all fear. It is endlessly fascinating. It commands attention and occupies the mind. It is not sex, but death which has become the great unmentionable in our society. It is perhaps a truism to say that it is the only certain fact of life; everything else is chancy. It is perhaps mawkish to say that from the moment we are born we are infected with a terminal disease called life!
How preoccupied we are with death. It dominates our newsreels, features in TV shows and cartoons, and murder is the most popular subject of fiction. We can’t get enough of its terror, yet we hate its profligacy.
It is important to face up to death squarely, for in so doing I believe much of its power to terrify or rob life of purpose or meaning will be diminished.
Death is inseparable from life. A seed dies, buried in the earth and, after a time, new life is born. Death itself is dynamic, never simply static or isolated from momentum. Its pause, its evident lack of rhythm, is deceptive; for forces of life are gathered and gathering. At death a body is indeed still and decaying, yet a personality is a great force of incredible diversity and many dimensions. It is this truth that the great world religions address in their teaching, and if we look at religions properly and take to heart their understanding of this mystery, then much of the sickly sentiment and the uneasy reassurances which people offer to the bereaved can be avoided.
The attempts to avoid the inevitability of death have led in literature from the comic, as in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, where the protagonists swear to “kill this traitor, Death”, to the sombre as in John Shirley’s:
There is no armour against fate
Death lays his icy hand on kings
Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down.
I think that John Donne’s expression defuses much of the tension and gives an opportunity really to see the last enemy in a proper perspective:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so
and the celebrated final lines:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
It is this belief, expressed through religious understanding, which I believe does make a real and fundamental difference, and I hope to show that it is more than mere wishful thinking.