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Death and religion

Today’s “Sunday” programme on BBC Radio 4 had an item on how well, or badly, the churches in Britain support the old as they contemplate their coming death. A lady aged 90 had found that clergymen were generally pretty unwilling to discuss such matters. This reminds me of the joke about the vicar who was asked what he expected to happen to him after he died.

“I suppose I shall enjoy everlasting bliss in the arms of the Lord,” he replied, “but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such depressing things.”

I heard somewhere about an Irish parish priest who was asked what his flock believed about death and the afterlife. “They believe three things,” he said. “One, they believe every single word that Mother Church says about the subject. Two, they believe that when you’re dead you’re dead and that’s the end of you. And three, they believe that you should bury the buggers deep or they’ll come back and get you.”

It’s interesting if the Christian Churches are not talking much about death or the afterlife these days. When I was a boy the Catholics, at least, used to be pretty strong on such matters. My late headmaster at Downside used to relate, with satisfaction, that when he went each year to the headmasters’ conference he told the assembled heads that he was preparing the boys, not for life, but for death. (Actually, I don’t think this line was original; according to a contributor to the correspondence column in which I took part in The Independent in March this year it goes back at least to the 194os and is probably older than that.)

One group that does definitely confront aging, sickness, and dying is the Buddhists, who make a big issue of facing up to it.


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