“Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.”
(Act IV, Scene V, Line 33)
Over the past 24 hours, 19 Victorians died as a result of COVID-19. In light of the volume of new cases that we are seeing, many more Victorians will die from this terrible virus over the coming days and weeks. Each and every single one of these people is a life to be mourned.
Victoria averages between 3000-4000 deaths per month, from all kinds of causes. That’s over 300 people dying every day in our State. Each of them is a loss to our community and is cause for grief.
Julie Power, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald (‘Even in a pandemic, most people shun talk about death and dying’, August 11), has highlighted how Australians are “reluctant to think about death or make plans for how they want to go.”
According to a recent survey conducted among 1,100 people in NSW, 70% of Australians prefer to avoid addressing the issue of death.
Power’s suggests that “The deaths of older Australians alone and isolated from friends and families during the pandemic highlights the need to talk about what constitutes a good death.”
I agree, we need to talk. We appreciate that such conversations are difficult at the best of times. Who among us is keen to discuss our final days and to make decisions about funerals? Contemplating death is altogether horrible, even more, when we are considering people we know and love. Death is, to quote the Bible, ‘the last enemy’.
Unlike most cultures for much of history, we have managed to sanitise death with our modern medicines, clean white sheets and closed doors. We have successfully delayed death through vast improvements in medicine and technology, with greater standards of livings, by educating people about health, and through legislating thousands of laws guarding public and workplace safety. Despite all this, we cannot account for the unexpected accident, a natural disaster, or the coming of a pandemic. Even when we evade such tragedy, our bodies have been in motion since birth, taking the road of gradual deterioration and decline.
One thing this pandemic has proven is how much we wish to rage against the dying light, to fight and resist it with all our might. Death is not a friend, it is an enemy to struggle against.
It is one thing to have discussions about dying well, as Julie Power is urging, but it is quite another to die with or without hope. Hope doesn’t evade death, and neither does it remove painful grief, but it makes all the difference in the world.
A young mum whom I knew, died from ovarian cancer on August 1st. She grew up with an atheistic worldview, but when confronted with cancer and receiving a poor prognosis, she began asking questions and searching for hope. Suffering didn’t reinforce her atheism, it led her to seek out God. In learning about the person and work of Jesus Christ, she didn’t feel repulsed or angry at God for her cancer, rather her life was transformed by the beauty and warmth of Jesus. This wasn’t Christianity offering her a placebo in the face of death, but her becoming convinced about the reality, goodness, and certainty of the Christian Gospel.
“he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;” (Isaiah 25:8)
There is never a good time to talk about death. Conversations about funeral arrangements and taking care of those who remain behind are important. These are difficult discussions we need to have with close family members; not because death is imminent for most of us, but because we do not know when the hour will come.
As a Pastor of a Church, it is my great privilege to spend time with people who are facing their final days on the earth and to sit with grieving families in their homes and to stand with them at the graveside. The question of hope is rarely left alone as people grapple with the reality of the grave.
On one occasion Jesus arrived at the home of his friend Lazarus, who had died some four days earlier. Visiting the tomb of his friend, we read what is the shortest sentence in the entire Bible, “Jesus wept”. Mingled with grief, Jesus also spoke confidently of hope, not only for Lazarus but for all who look to him.
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”