Speaking of Death
Drawing on recent films, books and a radio play, Linda Allcock highlights a growing openness to talk about death in our culture – and how it gives us fresh motivation and opportunities for sharing the gospel.
“Merry Christmas poppet. I can’t believe you are going to be 30 soon. I wish I could have been there to see how you’ve grown… So this is my last tape. I wish I could keep talking to you every Christmas but it’s time to say goodbye.”
I was taken aback to hear that recording of a mum, who had died of cancer, on Radio 5 Live. It was from a Christmas video: Love is a Gift. It went viral, despite having cost just £50 to make! The story was of a young man counting down the days until Christmas, so he could listen to the next tape his mum left for him using his old Sony Walkman (remember those?).
I was surprised because until recently our culture treated death as the great taboo. I read a magazine article in 2016 which referred to it as “the ‘D’ word”, rather than spelling it out in full. “You will not certainly die” has proved to be the first and perhaps most enduring lie this world has ever heard (Genesis 3:4).
Yet this newfound freedom to face up to the reality of death is everywhere. I invited a friend to join me in visiting Colombia Road Flower Market, to which she replied “I’d love to. It’s on my bucket list.” She is 25 and perfectly healthy! ‘Bucket list’ only came into popular use in 2007, after the film of the same name, coined from the phrase ‘to kick the bucket’ (meaning ‘to die’). ‘Bucket list’ is now in common usage, as we are increasingly aware that we don’t have long to live.
It’s there in the latest books, too. I picked up one of the New York Times Best Sellers in the library and I was shocked to find that both the pivot and the end of the book hinged around the fact that “you and everyone you know are going to be dead soon.”
It’s not just in the adult section. A Monster Calls was brought home from school by my 11-year-old. The tragic story of a child coming to terms with his mum dying. We all read it, and wept. Then watched the film. My 14-year-old is raving about The Fault in our Stars by John Green. A love story about two kids with terminal cancer. She won’t allow him to fall in love with her because: “I'm a grenade and at some point I'm going to blow up and I would like to minimise the casualties, okay?”
Eternity Changes Everything
At last! We can talk freely about death. Why am I so pleased? Because in the birth of Jesus, the Bible tells us that: “on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16). In the shadow of death, the gospel is not just good news, it is the best news.
That New York Times Best Seller mentioned above comments that without death everything would feel inconsequential and all experiences would be arbitrary. That reasoning is bizarre and backwards – but the author is close. He has realised that eternity changes everything. Staring into the abyss of death, you realise that if there was a way through to the other side of death, that would be a game changer.
Historically it has been a game changer. Those at the heart of the greatest revivals lived at a time when death was an ever-present reality. They knew that "against this arrest there is no bail" (George Swinnock, 17th Century preacher). They were unafraid to preach sermons like:
"Familiarise the thoughts of the evil day to thy soul. Handle this serpent often. Walk daily in the serious meditations of it. Do not run from them because they are unpleasing to flesh, that is the way to increase the terror of it.” William Gurnall (17th century preacher)
They were deeply impacted by the reality of it:
“As I was walking in the fields, the thought came over me with almost overwhelming power, that every one of my flock must soon be in heaven or hell.” Robert Murray McCheyne (19th century preacher)
As I listened to 5 Live and heard that late mum wishing her son a merry Christmas, it was painfully obvious that though she speaks, she is gone. There is no bail he could pay to bring back his mum. I still cannot believe that this is one of the loudest messages our society heard at Christmas as it was picked up and reported on by most major news outlets.
What a time for us to continue sharing the amazing news that “on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”