Why We Must Face Up To Our Death
This month marks my birthday— which strangely puts me to thinking about death.
Of course, the prevailing impact of Covid-19 means that we are all much more conscious of the question of illness and death.
Living in South Africa we are never so far away from the issue of mortality: between HIV/Aids, TB, road accidents, violent crime and just the general poor health of so many people around us. But this pandemic has forced people across the world to face up to the old line that the only thing in life you cannot avoid is death.
Covid makes it more top-of-mind given the sheer number of people dying: the worldwide statistic for deaths has now passed half a million.
While, at time of writing (Tuesday), South Africa has recorded “only” 3 300 deaths from Covid, this is generally regarded as an underestimate. In any case, it will have increased by the time you read this.
Because I have so many loved ones in the UK, I am especially aware of the impact of the pandemic there. The official death toll in Britain is 44 000; but when they compare deaths in this period to a “normal year”, the estimate is that there have been more than 55 000 “excess deaths”.
The vast majority of those have been among the elderly and so I am especially conscious of how vulnerable my own parents are: either side of 80 years old and diabetic. They have been following all the rules of social distancing and isolation and, thanks be to God, are healthy and safe.
But I have noticed that my father recently has been taking small steps that show he is thinking about his own death: sending me photos that might be useful “for some future purpose” (perhaps a requiem card?). He has also been filling me in on gaps in the family history—some surprising examples of divorce in a traditional Catholic family—and letting me know where to find key documents, “in case you need to get to them”.
This is not maudlin: it is realistic. He is likely to die in the next few years, and since he is a very organised person, he wants to make sure that all is organised.
Preparing for death is something that we should all do. But it is something many people are afraid to do. That is also why we are so reluctant to talk about death, as if by not thinking about it, it somehow will go away. But when we do confront our own mortality, it can be a great release.
At the virtual National Arts Festival there have been a series of really insightful conversations with pairs of people under the title “Death and Birth in My Life”.
The creator, Mats Staub, uses these individual experiences and local contexts to raise some bigger existential questions—just as the Gospels do and a good preacher should do.
Thanks to this being online, we get to see the participants up-close—not just when speaking but also when listening to the other person’s experience. (All NAF online performances remain available on their website until July 16; and performances from the Fringe Festival until July 31.)
Death is the goal
Of course, as people of faith, we should definitely not be afraid of facing death—indeed we should see it as the goal towards which our lives are oriented.
Older readers might recall as children being told to “pray for a good death”.
I don’t know whether the late Paddy Kearney continued with that childhood prayer, but, having spent some time recently working through his archive (as preparation for writing his biography), I can see that he was certainly someone not afraid to face his own mortality.
After all, he had catalogued his archive clearly in preparation for someone else to read. He made notes on how he wanted his funeral to be, and he encouraged those of us around him to plan for his succession.
It is the greatest mark of humility to imagine a world without myself—and as they say, the graveyards are full of people who thought themselves indispensable!
And it is never too young to face these questions. Last week a friend of mine died at the age of 33 of Covid-related complications in Johannesburg. A man full of life found his time cut short.
Even if we do not care for ourselves, we should certainly prepare for our death for the benefit of those around us.
The shock of dealing with the death of a close friend or relative is only compounded by discovering that they did not leave a will or clear instructions about what their final wishes were. So, as we globally face our mortality, can I urge you to check the following:
- That you have a will which is up-todate, written and witnessed, making sure that you have catered for those you care for but also leaving something to the Church or a charity of your choice: and that someone knows where the will is!
- That you have left clear instructions for your funeral: burial or cremation, type of service, even the choice of hymns or flowers.
- That your financial affairs are clear and decipherable by someone else.
- That you have left your passwords somewhere safe but retrievable for your executor.
- That you have reconciled with anyone you need to—for your sake but also for theirs.
- And, of course, that you are using the services and the sacraments of the Church to help you prepare for what God has been leading us towards throughout our lives
Take comfort from the funeral words: “Life has changed, it has not ended.” And these are words that can also help us cope with some of the inevitable changes in our world as we move to the “new normal”.
One such are the changes to The Southern Cross which we read about in this week’s editorial.
Rather than seeing the distressing news of the staff’s retrenchment as the death knell, let’s instead congratulate the board on facing up to the economic reality that we all face, and committing to work with the team to show that, as people of faith in the face of death, we still see life—in the case of The Southern Cross, reviving as a magazine.