Aspects of Death (2003)

January 7, 2003 - January 9, 2003

Aspects of Death
July, 2003 (Cardiff)

The Principal Speakers

Professor the Baroness Finlay of Llandaff is a Consultant in Palliative Care Medicine and Vice Dean of the Medical School, University of Wales College of Medicine, where since 1996 has also held a personal chair in Palliative Medicine. She co-authored the first national curriculum in Palliative Medicine for medical students, general practitioners and higher professional training grades and has been active in establishing the discipline within the undergraduate curriculum in medical schools throughout Britain. In 1989 she established the Diploma in Palliative Medicine at University of Wales College of Medicine, which has received international recognition and has been undertaken by over 700 senior doctors from around the world. She received the Welsh Woman of the Year Award in 1996, was President of the Medical Women’s Federation 2001-2002 and received a peerage in April 2002.

Professor Elizabeth Stuart is Professor of Christian Theology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Theology and Religion at King Alfred’s College, Winchester. She is an internationally acknowledged authority on theologies of sexuality and gender, has published extensively in the fields of Feminist and Queer theology and edits the journal Theology and Sexuality.

A Reflection on the Conference

Christianity, Death and Culture: drawing threads together, or ripping the fabric apart?

Endings are never easy. Arguably, they should always be something of a struggle.

Is there such a thing as a good conference ending?

Would it be a moment of hope and clarity, or a final disintegration into hopeless despair?

Would it gracefully draw the threads together, or finally rip the fabric apart?

The ending of the last conference I attended on death was a dismal failure. Picture a conference auditorium in Geneva for the meeting of the European Association for Palliative Care (a very French affair, very existentialist…) The congress begins and ends with a carefully choreographed postmodern Danse Macabre. As a piece of ritual it is so hollow as to be almost ludicrous. The Organising Committee line up in solemn procession at the back of the hall, variously clad in funereal blacks and clinical whites. They are carrying aloft a cardboard coffin (doubtlessly recycled), while a badly tuned brass band strikes up a lament which is some kind of bastard offspring of Stravinsky and Simon and Garfunkel. We then watch this bizarre procession weave its way through row upon row of frankly bewildered conference delegates. Nobody is leading. Nobody is following. There’s a man in a grey suit, a doctor in a white coat, and a weird bunch of seeming officials who look suspiciously like Whitehall spin doctors. Who knows what they think they are doing, or where they think they are going? There is not going to be any interment. The hapless coffin is simply abandoned on the stage as an object to stare at. The delegates squirm with embarrassment, despairing of any shared meaning, shuffling in their seats as the brass band whines and rattles along to a concluding imperfect cadence.

It was a dismal ending to that conference. We had a funeral without any body. We had mourning without belonging. We had solemnity without substance. We had death without destiny.

But is there such a thing as a ‘good’ conference ending? A good practical theological conclusion? Can we gracefully draw the threads together, or must we finally rip the fabric apart?

The fabric I have in mind is the intricate interweaving of Christianity and death in western culture. As practical theologians, do we ultimately deconstruct the whole tapestry, or are there some crucial threads that we can weave together to take forward on our onward journeys?

Retrospect. Liz Stuart exposed a pretty worn thread in the failure of the Christian imagination in respect of death and dying. The loss of heaven in western culture is arguably irretrievable. The great blue yonder has gone for good (or is it for ill?) We have had our traditional cosmology ripped away from us. Could anyone in contemporary culture, for example, dare to present the Christian life as a Pilgrim’s Progress to an assured Heavenly City? Would any contemporary writer have half the audacity of John Bunyan with his eschatological certainties, and the trumpets sounding for him on the other side? The heavenly thread has been worn very thin, thanks to the Marxists and the other usual suspecters. Our old dualisms have gone for good (or is it for ill?) And we must be grateful to Philip Pulman for at least giving them a decent burial.

By Tuesday evening I felt some threads being drawn together again by Off the Page. My imagination was exquisitely touched by that simple series of rehearsed readings. It was the sense of struggle that communicated. Once again I was ambushed by Dylan Thomas. Criss-crossing our emotional landscape, strumming my pain, weaving our story, pulling on that deep human thread of passion which could be utterly secular, or utterly sacramental, in the same shared glance.

I believe there is a resacralisation of death taking place in our culture, particularly through the arts. Both within and beyond traditional ecclesial and theological boundaries. I’m thinking for example of John Taverner’s queer marriage of orthodoxy and post-modernity. I’m thinking of Andrew Motion this week opening up the possibilities of a new transcendent space by teaching lay people how to write a quality eulogy. I’m thinking of that gross icon of north-eastern spirituality that I drive past on the A1: Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. That’s practical theology. It’s real and rugged. It’s not the soft and spineless expression of some ‘compost theology’. But it’s hard, hammered, rusted steel – great girders spread-eagled over the Team Valley – cross-and-regeneration in one huge presence and astonishing benediction.

But beyond the immediate shadow of the angel, perhaps the fabric is disintegrating. We are told that we have lost any communal vision of the ‘Good Death’. According to Michael Ignatieff, ‘Many other cultures, including many primitive ones whom we have subjugated to our reason and our technology, enfold their members in an art of dying as in an art of living. But we have left these awesome tasks of culture to private choice. Some of us face our deaths with a rosary, some with a curse, some in company, some alone. Some die bravely, give courage to the living, while others die with no other audience than their lonely selves.’

Age Concern has published recently their 12 Principles of a Good Death, which represents not so much a new ars moriendi as a lowest common denominator for a pluralistic post-christian liberal democracy that is focused more on dignity and choice than any profound intuition of eternal possibilities. You could be forgiven for thinking that the fabric of the ars moriendi has perished for good.

Yet one of the most practical signs of hope in recent decades is the Christian-inspired hospice movement. In all its detailed research and caring, it has taken up some traditional Christian threads and virtues in ways that have been pastorally impressive and culturally highly effective. One of the motifs from the hospice movement that, with more time, we might have developed is the grace of hospitality.

A little etymology. For the Romans, hospes stood for both host and guest. Derived via the Sanskrit han, to strike, comes the Latin hasta, a spear, and hostis, an enemy or foreigner, but also – paradoxically – hospes and hospitality. How do we get from hostility to hospitality in one etymological leap? The story goes that primitive man stands guarding the entrance to his cave or hut. A stranger approaches. He must be enemy. He might have spear. I have a spear. I will take up my spear to meet him… Or shall I lay down my spear? Shall I set out to greet the stranger with food and welcome? And bring him into my home in an act of hospitality. Both host and guest, with spears disarmed?

The disarming of death through God’s gracious and eternal hospitality is the deep narrative inspiring hospice praxis. A strong and beautiful thread that many of us continue to work practically into our theology.

As hosts and guests this week of BIAPT hospitality, can we find such a thing as a good conference ending?

For me it is a fresh focus on death education, part of the traditional priestly task to prepare the dying for their death. Liz reminded us that we have baptism classes, confirmation classes, wedding classes. What about death preparation classes? What would contribute to a newly evolving ars moriendi? In the intricate interweaving of Christianity, death and western culture we will need both deconstruction and major reconstruction. At the death of Jesus, one of the most potent verses in the New Testament tells that the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom. Where can we gracefully draw threads together. And where must we boldly rip the fabric apart?

Margaret Whipp

Michael Ignatieff, The Needs of Strangers, New York: Viking, 1985, pp.76-77.

Debate of the Age Health and Care Study Group, The Future of Health and Care of Older People: the Best is Yet to Come. London: Age Concern, 1999.