Most of you will know that I love movies. In one of my favourite movies, Meet Joe Black, we hear the expression ‘death and taxes.’ It’s an odd combination, which was first used in literature back in 1726 by Daniel Defoe and later in 1817 by Benjamin Franklin who said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I guess in many way’s that’s true. Whether we like it or not, we all at one point or another, must deal with death.
Almost 100 years later, in 1910, Henry Scott Holland, who was Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford and a Canon of Christ Church in Oxford, delivered a sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral following the death of King Edward VII. His sermon was entitled ‘Death the King of Terrors’. It was this sermon that led to him writing perhaps his most well-known work entitled “Death is nothing at all.” If you’ve been to many funerals, the chances are you may have heard it before.
This is what it says:
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to 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 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 effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
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 around the corner.
All is well.
That’s often where it ends; and I’ll come back to that point in a moment. I don’t tend to use the poem at funerals because Holland’s writing has so often – all too often – been taken out of context to imply that death is meaningless. Some sources have even changed the wording of his Poem in a way that totally removes his original meaning and sentiment!
The reality that we are confronted with today is that if we look around us at a funeral, it’s clear that death is anything but meaningless! I believe that one of the reasons why people of faith or no faith find death so difficult is because deep down in the core of our being we know how wrong it is; we are not destined for death, we are not created for death. We are created for life and life eternal even if we cannot avoid the certainty of death. We see that in life; we see that in nature.
Like so many things, it is all too easy to take something out of context, to not look at the whole picture. That’s what most people tend to do when they read that piece. However, if you read Holland’s writing in all fullness, he concludes by saying this:
Nothing is past; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before only better, infinitely happier and forever we will all be one together with Christ.
Henry Scott Holland
The point is this; yes, death might be certain, but death certainly isn’t the end and in that we have a choice. We can either believe that death quite simply is the end, and that’s it. Or we can believe that death is simply the end of one chapter and the beginning of another; death is nothing at all IF we look at it in the context of Jesus Christ and eternal life.
I don’t think that there can be any doubt that losing a loved one is perhaps the hardest thing we have to cope with in life. It can cause a whole range of difficult and surprising emotions to come to the surface – emotions such as shock, fear, anger, sadness, confusion, guilt and possibly regret. It is important to acknowledge these emotions, and to work through these emotions. If we don’t allow ourselves to do that, as psychologists would tell you, we risk journeying through false grief. In this service we have a precious moment and opportunity to acknowledge our emotions as we remember loved ones we have lost, and also to remind ourselves of God’s truth, God’s presence and God’s comfort.
In having known the people we remember and commemorate today, we are all different people than we might perhaps otherwise have been. We are capable of having such an effect on one another; more than we often realise. We must learn to “tread lightly” with other people, we must learn to relate at an emotional level in order to be fully integrated human beings. What legacy would we want to leave behind when our time is upon us? And I am not talking about material things; I am talking about the lasting impact we have on other people. What effect would I want to have on you today, in this time and in this place? I would want to invite you to think about hope by sharing with you what my hope is and that is perhaps best captured in some readings from the Bible.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
For people are not cast off by the LORD forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to any human being.
When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
I keep asking that the God of our LORD Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.The three themes that unite these verses are faith, hope and love. In this service in which we remember before God loves ones we have lost we can hold onto these truths. Yes, death may be certain, but it’s not the end. We are called to hope, and we do that with the eyes of our hearts enlightened to know his incomparably great power for those who believe. If we believe, as I do, that Christ conquered sin and death on the cross then we need to live our lives in that reality. Jesus said his “Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” Amen