In a previous post about my new book ‘Love Remember’, I mentioned that I had made a surprising discovery about the famous passage by Henry Scott Holland ‘Death is Nothing at All’. So I thought I would tell you something more about that, by sharing with you part of the introduction to Love, Remember, in which I discuss Scott holland’s ‘poem’ and its surprising original context.
Love, Remember is out already, but if you are in or near Cambridge do come to the official launch in Heffers Bookshop at 6:30pm. Admission free but tickets available here (so we know numbers for wine etc!)
Now here is my reflection on ‘Death Is Nothing at All’:
Funerals, which mark should mark and lament loss, name and confront death, are re-branded as ‘celebrations of life’. This insistence on giving everything an instant and positive spin, has begun to fill me with unease. This unease was crystallised for me in a brief and now nearly ubiquitous quotation from Canon Henry Scott Holland which is often presented, as a poem, usually titled ‘Death is Nothing at All’ :
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!
Now I must tread delicately, this oft-quoted passage may, quite understandably, be a favourite with some readers of this book, and I do not doubt, that it has brought comfort, real comfort, to thousands, for there is, or rather there can be, real truth in it. I too live in the Christian hope that we, and those whom we have loved and lost, will together see the final truth of these words of consolation. One day we will know that ‘life means all it ever meant’, we will look back from the glory of resurrection on death as a ‘negligible accident’ and rejoice to know that ‘all is well’. But that is not where we are when this passage is handed to us on a shiny card by the funeral director or even when it is read at the funeral. Taken by itself and on its own, so soon after the shock of bereavement, these ‘comforting’ words about life can paradoxically seem like a deadly lie. A ‘quick fix’ appearance of happiness that only makes the grieving feel guilty for their grief.
For taken by themselves, and that point in our grieving, these words are simply not true: something terrible has happened, a seemingly irrevocable disaster, something inexplicable, blind and ruthless. We have been cut off from our belovèd in mid-conversation, the line has gone dead with so much left to do and say. There is a gap, a breach, a shadow and we are left stunned and sickened by its severity. If death is nothing at all, why did it have to happen? If death is nothing at all, why did the Son of God himself go through it with such sorrow, pain and cries of dereliction? Indeed, this little passage, as it is usually quoted and used at funerals, seemed to me so empty of the depth and resonance of the Bible, Christ in his dying and rising seemed so absent from it, that I could scarcely credit that it had been written by a Christian, let alone by a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral! In the end, I decided I must find the original context and read for myself the sermon from which it was taken. What a revelation that proved to be! This passage has been cut clean away and lifted out of a sermon, which deals more profoundly, more honestly and courageously with the reality of death than almost any other sermon I have ever read. It is as though someone has swiftly copied out the answer to a question without ever knowing what the question was, or ‘cribbed’ the answer to a difficult sum without ever being able to show any of the ‘working out’. The original sermon was preached in St. Paul’s Cathedral on the 15th May 1910 after the death of Edward VII, and Scott-Holland addresses not only the death of a monarch, but the reality of death as we all encounter it. Right from the beginning of the sermon he gives full, clear and courageous expression to the shock and reality of grief. Here is what he says about death in the very opening of the sermon:
It is the supreme and irrevocable disaster. It is the impossible, the incredible thing. Nothing leads up to it, nothing prepares for it. It simply traverses every line on which life runs, cutting across every hope on which life feeds, and every intention which gives life significance. It makes all we do here meaningless and empty.
And he laments, as we all must if we are honest, how cruel and random it seems when death strikes.
But how often it smites, without discrimination, as if it had no law! It makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us.
Then he goes on to show that shock and lamentation in the face of death is deeply embedded in scripture: our cry is the cry of the Word and the cry of all the World:
So the Scripture cried out long ago. So we cry in our angry protest, in our bitter anguish, as the ancient trouble reasserts its ancient tyranny over us today. It is man’s natural recoil. And the Word of God recognizes this and gives it vigorous expression.
So how does Scott-Holland move from these cries of pain to the serene and more familiar passage, beginning ‘death is nothing at all’ and ending, as it is often quoted, with the comforting words
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!
At first he simply speaks both of them, gives voice to what he calls ‘two ways of regarding death, which appear to be in hopeless contradiction with each other’. All honour to him that he does give voice to both of them, that he speaks for those that feel the grief as well as for those who feel and know the consolation. But he does more than that, he sets himself, and us, a real task:
Our task is to deny neither judgement, but to combine both. The contrasted experiences are equally real, equally valid. How can they be reconciled? That is the question.
The scriptural text of his sermon is 1 John, 3, 2-3.
Belovèd, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
As he opens out this text Scott-Holland seeks for the reconciliation of these two contrasting responses to death, where all reconciliation is to be found: in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, death is a terrible thing, but it is a terrible thing that that God faces for us and we face it with him and in him, in Christ. Our life is
hid with Christ in God, we face death with the promises and the assurance of God. We are already his belovèd children and doth not yet appear what we shall be.
As Scott-Holland says later in the sermon, ‘Already we are in Jesus; already we are of his body and yet it doth not year appear what we shall be’. And in the sermon he dwells compassionately on the ‘not yet’, for we are living in an ‘in between’ time, in one way still shadowed by death, in another lit by the promise of morning and resurrection.
As I read through this remarkable sermon, so much began to make sense. The famous passage which had seemed to me a facile denial when I read it torn out of context, not only made more sense but gained much greater authority, trustworthiness and comfort set against these other passages of the sermon which gave such compassionate voice to our grief and fear. These ‘contrasted experiences’ were indeed ‘equally real, equally valid’ and could both be given expression fully and brought to Christ.
So if we are agreed that it is a mistake to rush to the easy answer or the ‘quick fix’, and that the words of Henry Scott-Holland are weakened rather than strengthened by being separated from their context in a sermon that expresses pain as well as joy, how might we best restore the fullness, the range of experience and expression for all of us who have loved and lost? I hope that Love Remember will offer some help in restoring that full range of expression, in making the poetry of loving lamentation available in a new way. Love cannot help but remember, remembrance cannot help but weep. We yearn for trust, recovery and hope and hardly know whether and when and how to trust that hope, but perhaps the poetry in this book can help us as we feel our way forward.