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Life & Death
7 min read

How lament and hope destroyed death and transformed our attitudes towards it

Once we buried bodies outside cities, cast out from the living. Then we started burying loved ones inside them. For All Hallows Day, Andrew Davison explains how Christianity transformed attitudes to death. Part of the How to Die Well series.

Andrew works at the intersection of theology, science and philosophy. He is Starbridge Professor of Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and is currently a visiting fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.

Dozens of candles in cloured jars and holders litter the ground of a cemetry.
Commemorative candles at cemetery in Srebrniki, Gdańsk, Poland.
Ludomił Sawicki on Unsplash.

‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.’  

Seeing things two ways at the same time doesn’t mean ambivalence. Christianity has two things to say about death, and it says both forcefully.  They particularly come to mind during November, as the season of the year when we remember the dead. In this month we get the modern secularised rituals of Hallowe’en, but we also get Remembrance Sunday, when we think of those who fell in war; and on 2 November, we have All Souls’ Day, when ‘the faithful departed’ are recalled, and in many traditions, prayed for. 

Christianity’s two entwined attitudes to death are lament and hope. On the one hand, death is a shadow; on the other, a light has dawned that will banish that shadow.  Both aspects are in that line from St Paul:  

‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.’  

Death is our enemy; death is slated for destruction.  

Whatever a popular funeral poem might claim, death is not ‘nothing at all’.  That poem has been suggested a few times when I’ve been planning a funeral. It’s never stayed in the draft order of service longer than it’s taken me to ask the question ‘But do you really think that death is nothing at all?’  

Unlike our benighted predecessors, ancient and mediaeval, don’t we now understand that death is natural, just part of being the sort of creatures we are? 

I take the opposite approach to funerals. I do not treat death as ‘nothing at all’. I wear black vestments: I do not assume that mourners are ready, only a week or two into their bereavement, to skip to the bright hope of white as a liturgical colour. I make the liturgy solemn. I avoid circumlocutions like ‘he’s moved on’ or ‘she has passed’ (somehow popular at present). No: someone has died, and even if that came after a long illness or a long life, a death is a loss.  

The idea of death as enemy, though – ‘the most fearful of bodily evils’ (Thomas Aquinas) – might look out of date in the twenty-first century. Unlike our benighted predecessors, ancient and mediaeval, don’t we now understand that death is natural, just part of being the sort of creatures we are?  

It’s almost always a mistake to underestimate our forebears. They knew that we are animals, but also said that we are animals of an odd sort: we are ‘rational animals’. That left them with a conundrum (and here I continue to have Aquinas in mind). On the one hand, we are animals, and animals are mortal, so that makes death natural. On the other hand, Christianity also insists that death is a wrench, a disjunction, an affront.  

Reconciliation for this tension rests on that odd status of the human being, as a rational animal. We are animals, but also the sort of self-aware animals who are made for a relationship with God: suited for it, called to it. One model for that relationship, remarkably, has been friendship, with Moses as an example: ‘So the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.’ That sort of relationship, that sort of seeing God face to face, would confer immortality on our naturally mortal bodies (‘when we see him, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’). Thus, both parts of the conundrum are true: as animals, we are naturally mortal, yet our animality is called to a destiny beyond its nature. Our tragedy is not that we are animals, but that we are rational animals foolish enough to turn from God, and from the light of immortality.  

  

The message of the Incarnation and the hope of the resurrection turned something around for early Christians. They no longer found dead bodies frightening.

That’s the first half of our opening phrase: death is our enemy because, although mortal by nature, we were originally called to something beyond nature, but lost it. God was turned towards us, but we turned away. However, enmity, tragedy, and loss are not the whole story, and they are certainly not the end of the story. There is also death’s destruction. That’s what the life, death, and resurrection of Christ were about. If death is our enemy, then it’s a routed enemy, overcome, although not fully destroyed, until God recreates the world.  

Christians can be so excited about the prospect of death’s destruction that they forget that this destruction is still a promise, and we still live under its sway. For now, the hope and the sadness lie woven together.  That is why we read in the New Testament about ‘not grieving as others do who have no hope’. I don’t take that as a blanket injunction against grieving (death is still our enemy, after all), but as standing only against the kind of grief that has no hope (because death’s destruction is assured). Again, here are the two strands, woven together. We also see that two-sidedness in a funeral prayer used by Eastern Orthodox Christians (and at the funeral of the HM Queen Elizabeth II), the kontakion of the dead. Its final lines put place wrenching tears right next to the church’s great word of praise and celebration, ‘Alleluia’:  

All we go down to the dust; 

weeping o’er the grave we make our song: 

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. 

This duality in Christian attitudes to death shows up in how Christians treat the bodies of the dead. We probably take burial practices for granted, but the idea of treating the bodies of the dead with utmost care and dignity was a point that Christianity really belaboured. Christ, for instance, had given a list of six good deeds in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering travellers, visiting the sick, and visiting prisoners. It would be a bold decision to add to any list draw up by Christ, but the church did it, adding a seventh ‘act of corporeal mercy’: burying the dead. 

Christianity is definitively the religion of the Incarnation: of God taking up human flesh. Bodies therefore matter. Talk of casting off the body, as if the body were just some old cloak that the soul has outgrown, is not something Christians say. We are bodily creatures, so Christian hope is for the resurrection of the body. (So also – I should add for completeness – is Christian doom also bodily. Those who die at enmity with God and the good, the faith insists, turning down the offer of reconciliation, face the consequences in the resurrected body.) 

The message of the Incarnation and the hope of the resurrection turned something around for early Christians. They no longer found dead bodies frightening. In the ancient world, bodies were to be buried outside the city, cast out from the human community. Christians changed that, and started burying their loved ones inside the city. Bodies were to be treasured, not feared. The bodies of their heroes – those who excelled in virtue, and especially the martyrs – were brought right into their churches. Before long, no altar (the communion table) was quite proper unless it was built over the body of a martyr or other saint, or at the very least contained some part or relic.  

Veneration of relics has not been so common in the Church of England (the church to which I belong) since the Reformation, nor in the wider Anglican Communion. Slowly, however, it has edged its way back. In 2002, the cathedral where I’m a canon, St Albans, received a shoulder blade of St Alban, England’s first martyr, the gift of one of the dozen remarkable Romanesque churches in Cologne. That bone gets considerable honour on the weekend closest to his feast day (22 June). Relics are also familiar in the church in Philadelphia where I currently celebrate the Eucharist once or twice per week. The altars are usually at least lightly decked with relics. During Eastertide, they groan under the weight of them, including some impressive whole-bone affairs. Only in Advent and Lent – penitential seasons – do the relics disappear to the sacristy, replaced with statues of the prophets in Advent.  

It’s easy to grow accustomed to relics after a while. I should remind myself of their strangeness. Defying any trend in religious thought down the ages to denigrate the body in favour of the soul, here the body is holy, recognised as the site of God’s great works. Here, dead bodies are no longer to be feared. They are the most precious things the church owns, and threaten no contamination. Or, rather, if they suggest any contagion, it is a contagion of the good.  

Care towards the bodies of the dead reflects both poles of Christian attitudes to death. On the one hand, Christians have preserved the bodies of the dead with great care because death is an affront. Death is the enemy that falls upon us all, even the most holy among us. Lamenting that loss, we keep bodies safe until it is reversed. And there is also the other side of the Christian attitude to death: alongside lament there is hope in death’s destruction.  

Christianity, at its wisest, has not skipped through lamentation too quickly, but neither has it given lamentation the final word. Day-by-day funeral practice probably connects most clearly with the sadness, although the hope is woven through. The place of relics in many strands of Christianity (although by no means all), swings more towards an emphasis on death’s defeat. It rejoices in having among us, in all those slivers of bone, fragments poised towards Resurrection, when ‘death shall be no more’. 

  

Article
Assisted dying
Comment
Life & Death
5 min read

The careless conflation of independence, autonomy and dignity

As Jersey begins to legalise assisted dying, there’s keyword confusion.
A elderly women in a care home stands and places her hands on the shoulders of a seated woman.
Eberhard Grossgasteiger on Unsplash.

Reviewing Canada’s legislation on assisted dying, one anonymously authored article raises the concern: “Does it make dying with dignity easier than living with dignity?” This insightful question cuts to the centre of the debate: dignity. Or more particularly, the unwitting conflation of dignity with independence, and of independence with autonomy.  

As Jersey becomes the first place in the British Isles to begin the process of legalising assisted dying, I feel that we should listen carefully as to how and where these terms are being used, both in the formal debate, and in the commentary that surrounds it. The States Assembly in Jersey voted to allow the development of assisted dying legislation for those with six months to live (or twelve months if their condition is neurodegenerative). A second vote to make assisted dying available more broadly to those who experience conditions that entail “unbearable suffering” was defeated by a narrower margin. Reading the flurry of press releases that followed the vote, these keywords, autonomy, independence, and dignity, are everywhere. But are we really thinking about what these words communicate?  

People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position.

The word dignity comes from the Latin word dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, and this is still the primary definition given to the English word dignity today. The OED has it as “the quality of being worthy or honourable”, immediately followed by reference to “honourable or high estate”. If this is so, then dignity is not something that can be bought, nor assumed – it is a status conferred upon someone by the esteem in which other people hold them. The haughtiest person in the world can still be esteemed undignified, as can the richest. Moreover, the opposite is also true: we are never prevented from conferring dignity upon, and esteeming the worthiness of, those who live the humblest of lives.   

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves – do many of us not quietly associate the idea of becoming rich and powerful with becoming dignified? Do we not tend to assume the worthiness of those in high office – at least until we meet them and realise pretty quickly that they all put their trousers on one leg at a time, the same as the rest of us. This association happens because we have such a tendency to conflate dignity with independence (the ability to live without assistance from others) and autonomy (the ability to make one’s own decisions, and not have those decisions limited or interfered with). People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position. It is society who sees the autonomy of those in high status, and esteems it as dignified.    

Does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified? 

Repeatedly ancient wisdom, in the bible, warns us not to assume that dignity comes with the freedom of wealth or power. All the great ‘heroes’ of that book suffer their indignities. Fresh from the success of his Ark project, Noah gets drunk and exposes himself. Elated from a victory against an enemy, King David dances half-naked through the streets. These are just two examples of the catalogue of embarrassments and mishaps that beset nearly all the kings and leaders whose stories are told as part of the Christian story. One after another, they stumble and struggle with life and leadership. The apostle Paul explains that this is because God uses the foolish things of this world to shame human pride, “for even the foolishness of God is still wiser than human wisdom.” Therefore, Paul argues, God chooses to speak to us through the weak and the lowly things and people of this world. Never was this demonstrated so clearly as when Jesus was born in a draughty stable, lived a life of poverty, and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  

But what has all this to do with the debate over assisted dying? Well, I am struck by how often the idea of losing one’s independence (through disabling or terminal illness) is conflated with losing one’s dignity, and so dying through personal choice (autonomy) is presented as regaining it. One campaign group that speaks to this debate even calls itself ‘Dignity in Dying’ – but does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified?  

Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone. 

The Dean of Jersey, the Very Reverend Mike Keirle, has spoken of his concern that the change in legislation will make vulnerable people feel pressured to end their lives. Examples from Canada, where physician assisted dying is already available, show that his concern is not unfounded. In 2022, Canadian veteran and Paralympian Christine Gauthier phoned her caseworker to chase up the over-due installation of her new wheelchair ramp. She then describes how she was horrified to find herself being advised to consider assisted dying instead.  

"It is remotely just what they're doing,” says Gauthier, “exhausting us to the point of no return. […] I was like, 'Are you serious?' Like that easy, you're going to be helping me to die but you won't help me to live?"

Gauthier is not alone – she spoke out when she learned that four other Canadian veterans had reported similar experiences. In these unhappy moments, one can see how dangerous the assumption can be – the assumption that no one would want to live a life of needing help. Here are disabled people who do want to live, and this assumption, this careless conflation of independence, autonomy, and dignity, leaves them fighting for their right to do so. Why should anyone have to fight or even speak for their right not to commit suicide? It is little wonder that disabled actress, Liz Carr, describes assisted dying legislation as “terrifying” for disabled people. 

I respect that there are terminally ill people, and those who love them, who speak from a desire to end their suffering; it is clear that people on all sides of the debate need to have this difficult and emotionally charged conversation. But whatever the eventual outcome in terms of legislation, we must be careful that it is not based on careless assumptions, or on the conflation of one thing with an entirely different other. Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone – it is a state that can be conferred whenever, and upon whomever society chooses to confer it. Autonomy is the matter in question – we are talking about autonomy in dying. And whatever happens, we should by no means legislate in a way that leaves disabled people esteemed unworthy, left open to the indignity of fighting for their right to live.