As I write, there is a heated debate around the burial of Tamerlan Tsamaev, one of the men suspected of planting the bombs at the Boston Marathon in April. Some do not want him buried on American soil, others want him taken back to Russia. Feelings are running so high that the body is under police protection at the funeral directors. In the middle of this furore, the Boston chief of police has said, ‘We are not barbarians. We bury the dead.’
Death, dying and the rites around the disposal of the dead speak deeply into the heart of culture and different cultures have different traditions. Treating the dying with dignity and the dead with respect are, indeed, indicators of civilisation. In Britain, death has, by and large, been ‘medicalized’, that is, it has taken place primarily in hospitals under the control of the medical profession. But this is a relatively new phenomenon. Far more people died at home sixty years ago than today. Death has been removed from the family and community, though the influence of the hospice movement has been helping reverse this trend. Nevertheless, death has become a taboo in society and is only talked about when absolutely necessary. At the same time, the debate around assisted dying has been gaining momentum in recent years.
The Church has many opportunities to discuss the death and dying of Jesus Christ, reflecting on the relationship between his death and life – it is also important for our churches to be places where we discuss our own deaths and dying, recognising that death is a part of life. We often tell our relatives what we would like to happen to our bodies when we die: do we talk about the process of dying, more poetically described as the art of dying? In the past, death and dying were surrounded by a number of rituals, such as the family being gathered, the minister saying prayers, the nearest relatives wearing black. In some places the clocks would be stopped and the bees would be told. Such rituals gave people permission to act incomprehensibly in the face of the incomprehensible. They emphasised the mystery and sacredness of death providing a context for the dying to move from this world to the next and for the grieving to lament the loss of their loved one.
We all know what a Christian funeral looks like, but what about a Christian dying and death? Of course, death may be sudden, preventing any prayer or ritual, but often there is time, providing an opportunity for both dying and family to hear, in the middle of distress, the message of resurrection and hope. However, we need to start thinking about such things not when we are ill, but when we are fit and well, recognising that life and death are close friends. One way of beginning the conversation with ourselves and others is in the writing of our funeral service.Natural conversation about death within worshipping communities will seep into wider communities giving permission to a society, afraid to speak about this topic, to rediscover and re-appropriate healthy rituals around death and dying. All this will undoubtedly influence the debate on assisted dying.
Editorial for Link (Rochester Diocesan Newspaper), June 2013