The Church must remind us again about the certainty of death

Here is a Latin tag that you do not often hear: Timor mortis conturbat me– the fear of death disturbs me. It was once part of the responsories in the Office of the Dead in the old breviary, but I cannot find any trace of it in my new breviary, which is rather a pity, as it has a fine ring to it. I suppose the phrase fell victim to the liturgical reforms, as the Dies Irae did. This wonderful poem, once used at every Requiem Mass, is now not found in the Roman Missal; but it lives on in the concert hall, and there is nothing to stop you having it during a funeral, as fwar as I can see, even if it was removed from the Missal by Archbishop Bugnini.

The concept of the fear of death, which is so vividly conveyed by the Dies Irae was once a staple of Catholic preaching. Many are the older people who tell me that once upon a time every sermon they heard was about the Four Last Things, a phrase that one would probably have to explain to a younger Catholic. One favourite trick of the preacher was to end his sermon, I am told, thus: “The tree that contains the wood for your coffin is growing in the forest; indeed it may have already been cut down!” And even I have visited cemeteries, though not in England, that bear the legend: “As you now are, we once were; as we now are, you one day will be.”

But gone are the days of the memento mori. Gone too, by and large, in many places, is the cult of the Holy Souls. Most visitors to Malta, for example, would be stumped by those lovely roadside statues showing a soul in purgatory, designed to impel the passer-by to pray for the dead.

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Gone to is the language of death: what was once a joke in Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Loved One, has become the norm. I will never forget a very cross nurse telling me “We do not use that word here!” The word in question was ‘death’. People no longer die in hospitals, they deteriorate. But changing the language has not changed the experience. It still happens, and there are no exceptions to the universal rule.

While we have all done our best to hem Death in and make his depredations more manageable, Death is not really amenable to human management. I am in thrall to Ernest Becker’s 1973 book The Denial of Death. Death is the great enemy, the one reality that we spend our lives denying, and all to no avail. Is euthanasia, or assisted dying as it prefers to call itself, our latest attempt at denial? Are we trying to tame Death, to reduce it to something that we can all cope with, to exercise control over this last unsubjugated force?

Some years ago a very famous lady died in New York City, and her family announced that she “met death on her own terms”. This unusual expression led some to speculate that she had died with medical assistance. If one were terminally ill, and one decided to choose the manner and time of one’s departure, thus avoiding pain and uncertainty, would that be an effective cheating of Death? Would it be Death on our terms, or at least the best terms we can manage?

A few days ago, at the risk of sounding like a doctrinaire Marxist, I said that I suspected that the desire for euthanasia was driven by economic motives. I still believe this. But naturally, many other motives may be at work as well, and the fear of Death and the fear of pain may well play a major part too.

Humanity has been here before. The popular ancient philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism (the latter much misunderstood), both of which have some passing resemblance to Christianity, aimed to sooth the fear of Death, which was assumed to be the great fear that haunted all men. The Romans watched gladiatorial contests because this was supposed to make them brave and despise death. They too had a cult of suicide. Seneca’s suicide was held up as a noble and brave act, the act of a true philosopher. And yet the real cure for the fear of Death was not found in watching people die, or in philosophy. It was found in faith, faith in the Risen Christ, to which the martyrs testified. They were not afraid of dying, because they believed in the Resurrection of Christ in which they hoped to sahre. We need to rediscover our belief in Jesus Christ, who suffered and died, and rose again, faith in whom will overcome even the fear of death.

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