Back to issue
Good folk, come, rich or poor, this way,
Come, young and old, to see the play.
And think on this: though every man
Would live forever, no-one can. (‘The Preacher’, Totentanz)
Oh death, how can I understand?
I cannot walk, yet I must dance! (‘The Baby’, Totentanz)

Totentanz (‘Dance of Death’) is Thomas Adès’ critically acclaimed composition for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, premiered at the BBC proms in 2013.1 At once arresting and macabre, the work sets to music an anonymous German text that appears under a huge 15th century frieze which once covered the inside of St Mary’s Church, Lübeck.2 The frieze depicts a danced drama with the character of Death seizing people from every category of society in descending order of status, from Pope to peasant to baby. Class and privilege count for nothing. Interviewed about the piece, Adès notes that the dance of death is not an optional dance, it’s the one we all have to dance. It is both terrifying but also funny and absurd because of the total powerlessness of everyone no matter who they are: Death has to tell the Pope to take off his hat because it won’t fit into the coffin. At the end of the interview Adès is asked whether the writing of the piece has changed his view of mortality and death. He responds with a chuckle, ‘No, I mean it wouldn’t matter if it had, I mean it’s not going to change anything is it? That’s the point of the piece.’

Before conversion I was prone to some mild bouts of thanatophobia. Periodically in my Christian life it has returned, producing a flare-up of what Richard Lovelace calls my ‘characteristic flesh’. Yes, I admit it: I was the one who threw a ‘last-day-of-being-thirty-nine’ party, an unspecified number of years ago. Therefore, while this editorial might have reflected upon the Irish referendum to repeal that amendment, or the Royal Wedding and that sermon, I want to focus on that event which necessitates what my Anglican friends call an ‘occasional office’.

Recently, death has been on my mind. First, taking the funeral of a church member aged one hundred and three; second, still feeling the aftershock following the sudden death of Oak Hill’s principal Mike Ovey eighteen months ago; third, being alongside and witnessing the slow but inexorable deterioration of a dear dear friend and colleague in church ministry who, over a decade after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in his early forties, is now approaching the end of his race, and as you read this, will probably be with the Lord. These experiences have been personally painful but accompanying that pain has been a faltering but growing sense of privilege, of the Lord’s perfect pedagogy in a sanctifying exercise to de-mortify my mortality. As Gibson notes ‘Death creates as well as kills. It can shape and mold as well as tear and shatter.… Death is a Teacher.’3

Mrs Mary Loomes was born on Christmas Day 1914, the day of the football matches played in no-man’s land along the Western Front. One could argue she classified as an Edwardian. In that year Chaplin made his film debut in Making a Living, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion opened to positive reviews, and Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs was published. Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus was slashed by suffragette Mary Richardson in the National Gallery. Different times, a different world even, and to think of a single human being spanning it all. We made a lot of Mary’s age, particularly as she passed one hundred: a special birthday party, a local newspaper article showing her skipping well into her nineties, the card from the Queen (though no longer personally signed). No doubt, she was an extraordinary Christian women who gave a lifetime of service to the Lord as a wife, mother and London City Missioner. For that, we rightfully gave thanks to the One who had upheld her since her birth and who had carried, sustained and rescued her even to her old age and grey hairs (Isa 46:3).

And yet what I have reflected on most in this unusual instance of human longevity, is a stark full in the face stare at human finitude and mortality, of the inevitability of death, of the ephemerality of life, and of our mutability. I didn’t recognise Mary’s sweet soprano voice cutting through the crackle of the reel-to-reel recording played at the thanksgiving service. I only heard the grumbling and growling bass baritone sitting behind me on a Sunday. And in any other context, I would have had no idea of the identity of the smiling young women on her wedding day, shown to me over refreshments. I only knew a very wrinkled, wizened old lady. At this point I have never seen with such clarity the Creator-creature distinction: the unchanging ‘I am He’, contrasted with our ever changing creatureliness.

There are many modules to take in death’s curriculum. Death and mortality is God’s wrath revealed, an unnatural curse to be endured and feared, a fitting judgement for our puny pretensions to be as God (as Psalm 90 makes clear). For those in Christ of course, death is ‘ours’ (1 Cor 3:23), no longer a penalty for sin but a stingless servant and gateway to life.

However, as Ephraim Radner points out in his extraordinarily rich study, A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality and the Shape of a Human Life, we are reminded also that ‘the ordering of the traversal of the world, clothed in skins, is itself a divine gift’.4

While the ‘hope of heaven’ is a central Christian commitment, it should not be one that is based on the theological rejection of the grace that marks our being alive at all, given within the form of mortality. To say that mortality limits our being in a definitive fashion, theologically, is not to deprive our self-understanding of transcendent elements. That could happen only if our mortal existences were not created – that is, if they were not utterly dependent upon God. Indeed, the loss of a sense of creaturehood is what has determined the desiccated character of modern ‘immanence’ noted by critics like Charles Taylor in his studies of secularism.5

Such creatureliness means that amortality, ‘the mass condition where people don’t act their age and don’t acknowledge death’,6 is a denial of our created givenness. It’s futile, foolish and fantastical. One day, even the Rolling Stones will come to a stop.

A meditation on our creatureliness comes from the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter (1915–1997), a musician that I have become slightly obsessed with over the years. Richter is universally considered to have been a pianistic ‘god’ based on his prodigious technique, profundity of interpretation, longevity of career and incredible breadth of repertoire.7

Right at the end of his career and in his late seventies, one can hear in his recitals the stiffenness of joints and ardour of delivery in certain pieces that he would have tossed off with pyrotechnic abandon in previous years. The audiences are still ecstatic but it can’t mask the finger slips, slowing of speed and that Richter read from a score because of a memory lapse that had occurred at a concert caused by his perfect pitch having become a little less perfect. Richter’s ‘fight’ here is laudable but sometimes painful to listen to. But then in last year of his public recitals, something quite beautiful happens. An ailing Richter starts to play a selection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, miniatures he has never programmed publically before. Grieg had composed these little pieces throughout his life. A good amateur pianist could play them well but here is Maestro playing them. The first ‘Arietta’ was composed in 1867 by a twenty-five year old Grieg, the last ‘Remembrances (‘Efterklang’) in 1901 when Grieg is reaching the end of his own life. ‘Remembrances’ takes the theme of the Arietta composed all those years before, and in changing it to a waltz gives it an aged nostalgic feel. Listening to Richter play these pieces is a truly authentic and ‘real’ experience. Pieces, composed by an old man looking back at a life lived, played by an old man looking back at a life lived. The fragility of mortality here is profoundly beautiful and yes, transcendently human.8

Our mortality and death are meaningful in that they reveal things about ourselves and about our Creator. Sinful and supressing cultural discourse attempts to vandalise this meaning by attempting to obscure with its own graffiti. Our culture continues to redefine our mortality in a myriad of ways, domesticating it, being terrified by it, denying it. However, the intractability of death remains. We can argue that our contemporary cultural context is one where gospel ‘points of contact’ are being pushed down further and further underground. They are there (and are always there), but require us both to excavate with the power of a bulldozer, and operate with the deftness of a surgeon. Apologetically and evangelistically death is not an easy target, but perhaps remains an easier target: death is stubborn and just won’t die quietly.

In previous ages of low life expectancy and high infant mortality rates, days of plague, pestilence, famine and war, death was everywhere all of the time, hence the tradition of the totentanz and the danse macabre. Could it be that we need to re-appropriate such traditions? As Radner states:

[P]art of our Christian vocation is to proclaim the reality of death itself. Nothing could be more revelatory of contemporary forgetfulness – or faithfulness – than the disappearance of this proclamation from Christian teachers and preachers as a central part of the gospel they announce. The tradition of memento mori - “remember that you must die” – was not merely a medieval invention. Is stands as a central scriptural focus (e.g. Ps. 39:6; Luke 12:20). For to proclaim death, at least in its central aspect of our existence, is to return always to that form of our being as creatures. To announce our creaturehood is to proclaim God.9

Importantly, even when our culture does admit death’s existence we distract ourselves from its harsh reality, reinforcing our bravado in the face of it, to put whitewash over the kind of universal fear that would actually haunt us if we only stopped to think about it. In ‘How Death Got Cool’,10 Marisa Meltzer evidences how dying well and ‘death positivity’ is becoming a defining obsession of our time in some sub-cultures. One of Meltzer’s interviewees is mortician Caitlin Doughty, founder of The Order of the Good Death, ‘a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.’11 Members of the order (most of whom appear to be in their twenties and thirties) include a ‘grave garment designer’, a ‘mushroom decomposer’, a ‘smell of death researcher’, a ‘post-mortem jewelry designer’ and a ‘morbid cake maker’.

Groups like these do want to have a public conversation about death which is an obvious point of contact for us. What we must lovingly but firmly point out is that ultimately ‘death positivity’ does have the resources to deal with the hard reality and ‘negativity’ of the awfulness of death. As the journalist commentator Owen Jones (whose views are often antithetical to orthodox Christianity) confessed recently following the death of his father, ‘I have no idea if, or how, our culture will ever come to terms with death.’12 Into this vacuum we hold out that one can only ‘die well’ within the subversively fulfilling narrative of the gospel of Christ.

For Christian believers, remembering our death enables us to prepare for our death. One creative suggestion comes from Professor John Wyatt (emeritus professor of neonatal paediatrics at University College London) in his new book Dying Well. Coming from within the memento mori tradition he reminds us of the late medieval Ars moriendi (the art of dying). These were ‘self-help manuals for the person who was dying’ (because a priest might not be available) and that ‘could be read while you were still healthy but the manual was also to be kept for use during the final days and hours.’13 A standard format emerged consisting of a commendation of death; warnings on temptations that beset the dying person and how they could be overcome; a catechism on repentance with the assurance of forgiveness; Christ’s seven prayers on the cross as a model for the dying believer’s prayers; and finally an exhortation on the importance of this preparation with suggested prayers for those caring for the one facing death. Wyatt’s notes at the beginning:

Scholarly works on the Ars Moriendi are starting to appear and the question of what it means for Christian people to die faithfully is being discussed with renewed energy. What would happen if we tried to translate the medieval art of dying into our world, the world of technological medicine and care pathways for dying people?14

This is what the rest of the book attempts to do as each chapter is structured around the various stages of the Ars Moriendi.

Finally, as we remember and prepare for our death, we will learn the art of living. As Radner states ‘whatever the church’s full vocation may be at this time of unprecedented global transformation, it must include as a central element the ministry of day numbering.’15 This is also a major theme in Gibson’s excellent study of death in Ecclesiastes: ‘Dying people, who truly know they are dying, are among all people the most alive. They are not here to live forever. They are here to live for now, for today – and most of all they are here to live for others.’16 It’s been my privilege for over a decade to have witnessed this truth first hand as I have ministered to, ministered alongside, but most of all been ministered to, by my brother in Christ, Simon. His tumour has been a memento mori literally inside his head guiding his steps and shaping his decisions. Of course, there has been much pain and many tears of sorrow and frustration, but there has been so much laughter and tears of joy as he has lived and loved his family and his congregation. Mortality has gifted him a depth, intensity and quality of relationship with God and with others that has been beautiful to behold and has produced so much fruit. He has been a good pupil of Death the Teacher, numbering his days aright and so has become a wise man for he has experienced, and as we need to know, that we are all on borrowed time.17 He has lived for Christ and soon will be with him:

Q: Since then Christ died for us, why must we also die?
A: Our death is not a satisfaction for our sin, but only a dying to sin and an entering into eternal life. (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 42)