Dying Matters: What the Bible says about death

Dying Matters Awareness Week aims to get us talking about dying, death and bereavement. What does the Bible have to say about these things? Mark Woods explores. 

How do we respond when someone wants to discuss death, or grief, or their will or funeral plans with us? We may feel awkward and anxious, wishing we could dodge the conversation, but how many people are ‘dying to be heard’ on this matter? That is the theme of this year’s Dying Matters awareness week (May 11-17) with a focus on how to help people by listening to them.

The week is an initiative of the Dying Matters Coalition, set up to promote public awareness of dying, death and bereavement. Members include hospices, care homes, bereavement charities, faith-based organisations, the legal profession and the funeral sector. They want people to be able to talk about dying openly, instead of being silenced by fear or embarrassment.

Talking about dying is useful at a purely practical level. It really helps those left behind if we’ve made a will, or said whether we’d like to be buried or cremated. We might be able to talk through it with our families and explain what we’ve planned and why, potentially saving a lot of misunderstanding and heartache.

And even more importantly, confronting the fact that we’re going to die makes us see what’s important about living. There may not be time to mend that breach in the family, to apologise for hurting someone, to reconnect with people we’ve just left behind. Confronting our mortality can encourage us to do this before it’s too late.

The Bible is a life-affirming book, but it has a lot to say about death. Here are three of its consistent messages:

1. Be realistic

In the book of Ecclesiastes the writer says, ‘No one remembers the wise, and no one remembers fools. In days to come, we will all be forgotten. We must all die – wise and foolish alike’ (2.16). Ecclesiastes is not a cheerful book, but it’s an honest one. The Bible doesn’t sugar-coat reality. In the rich, developed West we have more opportunities for leisure and enjoyment than ever before. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they can become ways of insulating ourselves from having to think about eternity. We have a limited time on this earth, and we shouldn’t use it as though we’re going to live forever.

2. Make the most of your life

Jesus tells the story of a rich farmer who ran out of space to store all the grain from a bumper harvest. ‘I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones’ he says – rather than using the surplus to do some good. ‘You fool!’ says God. ‘This very night you will have to give up your life; then who will get all these things you have kept for yourself?’ (Luke 12.13-21). If we have more than we need, we’re fortunate. There are plenty of others who have nothing, and helping them is a way of becoming ‘rich in God’s sight’, says Jesus.

3. Remember resurrection

It’s natural to be afraid of death, and it’s natural to grieve for those we’ve lost through death. In that sense, death is an enemy. But the Bible speaks of God raising Jesus from the dead and overcoming death for everyone. ‘The last enemy to be defeated will be death,’ Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15.26); ‘For what is mortal must be changed into what is immortal; what will die must be changed into what cannot die’ (15.53).

We all need to confront our mortality. It’s good for those we leave behind us and it’s good for our own peace of mind – and the Bible’s ancient wisdom confirms this. But the Bible also encourages us to live in the light of eternity, because it tells us death is not the end

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