A few years ago I was visited by a person who wanted to talk to me about their funeral, and about leaving a legacy to the church. The reason I remember this is because it is the first and only time it has ever happened. Mostly, when I preside at a funeral, it is for someone I have never met. I have been contacted a handful of times by people who are terminally ill and we have talked through their funeral service. What was different about this enquirer though was that they were fit and healthy. Nonetheless, they had decided that they needed to face the inevitable and make preparations, even though their death could be decades away. If more people thought about this it would make the lives of many thousands of people better, people who find that they are dealing with the affairs of a loved one who has made no will and who has said nothing about what they would like at their funeral service.
Why was my visitor so hugely in the minority? There is not a person on the planet who really believes that they will never die. The media talks endlessly about sex, which was once the great taboo, only for society to move on to create a new taboo, and that is any thought or any talk about death.
Four years ago, mortality was the theme of the Reith Lectures on Radio 4. The speaker, Atul Gawande, a medical doctor from the United States, had just published a book entitled Being Mortal. In it, he reported that in America, the failure to accept our mortality was having a detrimental effect on health care. Fear of litigation had led clinicians to pursue a frenzy of interventions near the end of a person’s life which caused unnecessary suffering to the patient, and was enormously expensive. In addition to this there was a near-total neglect of palliative and end of life care. I get the impression that we have the balance a little better on this side of the pond, but it is nonetheless telling that hospice care in the UK is mostly charity-funded.
Our expectations of life are unrealistic. Because average life-expectancy across the planet is 70, we feel hard done-by if a loved one dies before that age. But an average age is not a minimum age. An average, by definition, means that equal numbers will live beyond that age as die before it. People expect that new medical advances will be available for them, people have endless hope in the development of new wonder-drugs; all this makes the death of a relatively young person even harder to bear.
What is the answer to all this? We need to accept that we are mortal, that suffering, illness and death are a normal part of what it means to be human. We are subject to ageing. Our bodies are designed to fall apart.
Some of us will live longer than average life-expectancy, and an equal number of us will die before then. I was once asked “Where is the fairness in this?” I responded that it is the next life that is our real life. We will be rewarded for what we have done on this earth. If someone has only lived thirty-five years, then they are judged on those thirty-five years; they are not penalised for not making it to the age of seventy. Put another way, twice as much will be expected of someone who lives to be seventy compared to what will be expected of a thirty-five year old.
The question will be: “What have you done with the years of life allotted to you?”