John Donne’s view of death is vividly expressed in his poetry:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Dylan Thomas has another view. The last lines of his celebrated poem on death express an altogether different attitude.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
However many of us would line up instinctively with the incident at a headmasters’ conference: A delegate remarked that his school prepared pupils for life. To which he received the response of another delegate You see, at Ampleforth we always seek to prepare our boys for death.
Our belief is that death is an important gateway through which we can pass – at least eventually – into the realms of the Blessed. A consummation, one might say, devoutly to be wished. But is that really how we feel?
Are we in fact rather nervous about death? Many of us belong to a generation in which the question, am I in a state of grace?, was repeatedly, and perhaps nervously, asked. Joan of Arc’s answer, via Bernard Shaw, was “If I am not, may God bring me to it: if I am, may God keep me in it!” We may not all be so sanguine – and an eternity in Hell seems a heavy punishment for getting that answer wrong.
Do some of us in the early hours ask ourselves: Is it really all true? Perhaps it is a fable and we all pass out of existence into nothing, just as we once came out of nothing into existence.
All of us will have gone through the experience of the death of someone close. We may be confident that they are up there – thinking of us and praying for us, just as we pray for them. But is that true, or just a very human way of obtaining consolation?
What do we believe about death?, what do we feel about death?, and are they the same?