How does death affect our lives?

Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001
Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001

It has suddenly become chilly, and we know autumn is here for sure. Putting the clocks back signalled the change, and with the evenings drawing in, time feels somehow different

The woolly pullovers come out. Overcoats are recovered from their summer sojourn tucked away in a wardrobe. Reluctantly, we put the heating on for a few hours, at least to start with.

With the evenings, we too start drawing in, adjusting our daily patterns to fit the season. The time feels different, and the brown leaves carpeting the ground are a clue to why.

This time of year, early November, always seems to me to invite us to think of death. The turn of the season serves as the backdrop, with the dying back of foliage the visible sign.

The turn of the season enfolds a turn of history. November 11th reminds us of the nearly one million British soldiers, sailors and airmen, and the multiple millions from other countries, who were killed in the Great War.

And the turn of the season also embraces the turn of the Church’s calendar. Very early in the month the Church marks All Souls Day drawing us into reflecting on death again, as we remember loved ones departed.

The day before, All Saints Day - All Hallows - on November 1st (a date established in the eighth century) is noticed more by most people because of the evening before.

While the history is unclear, the association of the eve – All Hallows Eve, or Halloween - with death and spirits continues to be reflected in popular culture.

There is a great deal about this time of year that invites us to think about death. We respond to that invitation in different ways.

Remembrance observances and Remembrance services continue to attract significant numbers of people. In fact several towns around the country report steadily increasing numbers at these occasions.

To some extent that might be explained by the awareness generated by the events marking the centenary of the First World War.

But the increasing strength of attendance at Remembrance Services long pre-dates the start of the centenary.

We have seen some increase too in attendance at All Souls Day services, particularly where a church makes a point of inviting the families of those whose funerals have taken place in the previous year.

Increased attendance at these services, along with other special occasions and festivals – Christmas and Harvest, for example – are one of the ways that church attendance is growing.

But maybe attendances at Remembrance and All Souls are not evidence of our increased reflection on death, but our desire to honour and remember those who have died, both those killed in the service of our country and those close to us who have died.

Maybe, after all, we do not spend this time of year thinking about death. The falling leaves, and the historic and religious ceremonies may not find us reflecting on death, but rather on re-lived memories of those who have died.

For some, the mood of the season may well draw us into reflective moments about our own mortality. But as a society we have become increasingly immunised against thinking about death, and against thinking about what it means.

What do we think? Some would say it is not worth spending time thinking about death anyway, rather than living life. If it is simply the end of life, the end of our existence, what is there to think about?

Others, and you would expect me to include myself, think very differently. Experiences of love, goodness, and beauty in our lives and relationships give us a sense of the eternal, pointing to a life beyond this one. Our faith gives shape and understanding to this sense.

In my previous job, training men and women to be priests, I would ask the trainee priests to think about what they thought about the prospect of their own death, and what they believed happened after death.

This was a very powerful and very important exercise, because, they realised as they engaged in the task that what we think about our own death affects how we live our life.

It makes a difference to the choices we make, our attitude and demeanour, what we think is important and what less so whether we think there is life after death, or not.

Maybe after all it is a good autumn task to ask ourselves, what do we think about our death. Not to be melancholic, but to be realistic, and to see how what we think about our death affects what we think about our life.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich