‘The manner in which people regard death relates a great deal about how they evaluate life. To many today the elevation of humanity and its needs above the ancient notion that life exists for higher purposes than our welfare, has reached a point where death itself seems a kind of blasphemy. We exalt ourselves so thoroughly that we cannot conceive of an order of things in which our desires are not sovereign. Translated beyond the grave this means that those who believe in survival after death – probably a large majority – reject the idea that, in a future state, they will experience anything but uninterrupted bliss. When life is considered as the endless pursuit of happiness, and the indulgences of pleasure are imagined to be the greatest good, it is scarcely surprising that a serene eternal life should be claimed as a normal extension of worldly existence. Modern people are universalists. In their picture of the afterlife there is happiness all round, no judgement, and limitless continuation of familiar human relationships. Few see a connection between belief and survival; seemingly any religious opinions are acceptable to God. More, doubtlessly, see a connection between good moral behaviour and survival, but it is always other people’s behaviour, rather than their own, which merits eternal condemnation. Death is regarded as a potentially minor interruption to the pursuit of happiness, no longer linked to judgement. The moral culture which no longer allows discrimination between ethnic groups, different cultures, personal lifestyles, sexual habits, or even religious belief, does not, equally, discriminate between those who have attempted a disciplined spirituality and those who have not. After death, we seem to be saying, it is eternal happiness all round.
This actually raises fearful problems for the priest attending a death. His traditional duty was to remind the dying person of the need for repentance, to assist an act of contrition, and to warn about the certainty of God’s judgement. Such a duty, performed today, would be considered enormously insensitive by the relatives. Death has to be sanitised; everyone has to be assured that they will receive everlasting blessedness. Do modern people really think that? Do they really think so highly of themselves that they believe they deserve to exist forever? Apparently so; it is no longer acceptable for a priest to remind the dying that they stand in urgent need of God’s mercy, but only, instead, to utter bland words of reassurance. The terrors of death remain, however, and the sugared attempts to disguise the horrific fact of universal judgement sound unconvincing even as they are being made. For life has a purpose. That purpose is the service of God. We all do it badly, but to think that we are entitled to exemption from judgement, however we have used our time in the world, is simple folly’.
Dr Edward Norman
Canon Chancellor of York Minster, 1999-2004
now a layman in the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham
Fr Lee Kenyon