Death, Funerals and Obituaries

A short while ago I posted an article titled “Becoming an OAP (now only a week away in my case). I didn’t want to appear too morbid yet if nothing else becoming an Old Age Pensioner is a wake up call when it comes to the transience of life and the need to make best use of the few days left to us here on earth, and this was brought home when I did meet up later with some old school chums in that very position. What was undeniable is even if things like serenity and wisdom may have come to the fore, youthful vigour is not there anymore. As was pointed out in one of our conversations, while as schoolboys death was hardly even thought about and only when someone we knew died, yet now we come across it all the time.

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Two weeks ago we learned of the death of Muhammed Ali (see here for what I wrote), who would have undoubtedly been one of the best know figures on the planet. Following that I learned of the death of chess grandmaster, Victor Korchnoi (see here for his obituary) and of Christian community activist, Bob Holman (see here for his obituary). I suspect few of my readers will have been aware of these two passing but both had profoundly influenced me, not least because they operated in fields that interest me. Korchnoi was your archetypal anti-establishment figure and his own man, who happened to play beautiful chess at the highest level, even up to close to his death. Holman was a modest, inspirational figure that pioneered the notion of linking social justice to Christian theology, leading from the front, whose writings I found helpful.

I have not met any of the above, but a week doesn’t go by when someone who I did know personally, who had made an impact on my life, passes away, and invariably I grieve and try to pay my respects. I find increasingly I am attending the funeral of someone I knew who died. I learned this week of an elderly lady who was a member of my church, who had died. She was very frail, was in pain and was expected to go soon. She was a kindly soul who looked forward to dying, knowing there was something far better beyond the grave. Today, as it happens, is the third anniversary of my mother’s death. I can’t help smiling thinking that if had stepped out of line (which was often) she would be telling me to b***** off. She lived to a ripe old age (90), was fairly ok physically although less so mentally, and died of natural causes, but I miss her terribly still. As is my custom, I visited her grave, noting yet again from nearby grave inscriptions the aching gap caused by the passing of loved ones.

In my own area of community activism, I remember some eight rough sleeper friends who died in the past year, all of which I knew and had affection toward, and being able to play a small part in helping to remembering them and so folk could pay respects to their memory. The thing about death is it can happen to any of us at any time, for it is outside of our control. My wife is a nurse working with patients who are often expected to die soon, and it is sobering to reflect on her experiences helping them make that final journey. Right now, as a nation, we are mourning the death of MP, Jo Cox, who was murdered. We are still reeling from the massacre of 49 people at an Orlando gay night club. In both cases, the motive of the perpetrators was hate, and I welcome one local campaign that is leading vigils inspired by the notion that love can and must overcome hatred and death. As readers will be aware, there is much going on in the world where the innocent die needlessly, often unreported or not noticed, like the latest ISIS atrocity or yet another death at sea by desperate, fleeing asylum seekers, and much more.

I got thinking along these lines when I read an article titled: “Three Deaths in One Week – An Extended Meditation”. Here the author reflected in a touching way on the death of three people close to him who had recently died, one was a child (perhaps the hardest death of all to come to terms with). He pointed out (it happened to resonate with me) as a society we tend to gloss over death, and in doing do so miss out on something important. Like me, he often goes to the Book of Common Prayer for comfort (some might say perversely). Stark yet true is its declaration: “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay”, and while I suspect some will take issue with this, it is balanced by notions like Jesus is the resurrection and the life, will prepare a mansion in heaven for those who trust in him and when there he will wipe away all tears, or a simple secular notion that while we are alive let’s spend our time doing good or my activist mantra of trying to make a difference.

This brings me to a presentation that I attended earlier in the week by a minster friend, who has worked as a chaplain in a hospice, and is now trying to facilitate opportunities for people to talk about death and dying and the various associated practicalities. Death continues to be a societal taboo subject, yet it is one we can’t ignore. Life really is short, it seems like yesterday when I sat in the same classroom as my old school buddies and here we are now all too aware our days are numbered but also mindful life is for the living.

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