Tuesday 17 August 2010

Funerals and Canon Henry Scott-Holland

I’ve recently returned to pastoral duties after three months on sabbatical leave. As is the way with pastoral ministry, I had to leave others to visit three terminally ill members of my congregation, and I wondered if I would see them again. As it happened, all survived my time away but all have since died. So this week is funerals week – all three of them! Having shared the journey of illness, it’s a privilege to take the services and to witness to our faith in Jesus Christ.

In one of the services, this coming Friday, the widow has requested the ubiquitous reading from Canon Henry Scott-Holland, ‘Death is nothing at all.’ For the uninitiated, here it is:

  • ‘Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!’

This reading has brought comfort to many. If it has done for you, I’m glad. Yet I want to take issue with Scott-Holland! His words seem to be death-denying. Death is something – it is not nothing at all!

Having lost both of my parents in the past four years, I feel reasonably well qualified to comment. Both my Mum and Dad were committed Christians, who served God faithfully over many years. Both of them, I believe are enjoying (or will enjoy – you decide!) the fullness of eternity with God. Yet physically, both are dead. They are no longer in this world. The grief has hit me in different ways. With my Dad, I found myself weeping unexpectedly when I wanted to phone him for advice and realized that I couldn’t. This was many months after he died. With my Mum, who had Alzheimer’s and no longer knew me, most of the grieving had already taken place. Apart from a couple of days between her death and the funeral when I was an emotional mess, I have been fine (although it's still only been six months). Yet I have discovered, contrary to Scott-Holland that death is not ‘nothing at all’! It is painful and loss-full (if there is such a word?). It marks a break between earthly life and continuing eternal life.

So what am I going to do about the reading this Friday? It has been requested, so I have little choice but to allow it. I think, though, that I will say it takes time before we can say that ‘death is nothing at all’. We need to grieve for our loss, even if there is joy in knowing that our loved ones have entered into an eternal inheritance.


  1. I agree with you but you made me look at the poem again and the last line, I think, is a window into this:

    How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again

    There is trouble in the parting - pain and grief and real heartache and tears
    But I think the author wants us to be allowed to grieve and laugh - no 'forced' air of solemnity or sorrow.
    One comment I often get at funerals is that I allow the right amount of laughter and wry smiles in my address as well as the sadness and pain of parting.
    Some people of an older generation felt they couldn't laugh or talk of the one who is dead - I suspect this is pastoral- to allow people to grieve 'and' remember joyfully as they feel they want to and not as others 'expect'
    It also says that death does not diminish all that was good in life and we can remember that with joy.

    But I maybe completely wrong!

  2. What is read as a poem is actually an extract from a sermon preached by Scott Holland which is actually much more balanced. More on this at http://joninbetween.blogspot.com/search/label/scott%20holland.

  3. Glad to stimulate some debate! Thanks for your link, Jonathan, and the very moving poem written after your brother's death. I shall try and read your article after today's funeral and sermon preparation. I'm aware that the sermon is more balanced but, of course, we don't get that balance from what is usually read.

    I may write something soon on the evangelistic potential of funerals. Watch this space!