I have probably been in the presence of around 25 dead bodies. The first time was a bit scary – or at least I thought it would be. The reality is that once someone has died they are just not “there” – quite different from them being asleep or comatose. Inevitably it invokes a sense of sadness, personal vulnerability, and even awe.
As a priest I spend time with people who are still mentally alert and aware they are dying. My job is to help them come to terms with their death and their faith. My experiences have highlighted that people fight incredibly hard when it comes to death: the body just refuses not to breathe.
Sadly, I have noticed even those who worship regularly have a built-in resistance to preparing for death. Several people in their late 80s have asked me not to talk of death because “it is too depressing”. But being scared of death is astonishingly far from the Christian tradition. The 6th-century monk and religious leader St Benedict tells his brethren to “keep death always before your eyes”. He doesn’t mean people should go around being morbid, but they be aware of their own mortality and live accordingly.
It seems to me that a denial of the inevitability of death means that so many things are not sorted out: goodbyes not said, wills not written, funeral arrangements unmade. It increases the stress at the very point when the bereaved cannot cope. I believe with greater openness and less collusion, death could be handled so much better.
This article was originally published by New Scientist on 10 October 2007 by Lucy Middleton.