Talking about death

Would you give up two hours of your Saturday to talk about death? Would you be willing to open up to a bunch of strangers about your fears and hopes about what lies ahead? Would you tell your friends that you’re involved in a “Death Café”?

Thousands across the globe would say, “Yes”.

It’s a phenomenon that’s been sweeping the US and Europe for the past five years. It’s not a bereavement counselling group, nor a support group in the common sense of the word – it’s not even a group where you get taught about dying (in fact having speakers is strongly discouraged). Such cafés are simply places where people of all faiths – and none – can share their thoughts on dying, death and the afterlife, and be encouraged to make the most of the time they have left.

They’re places where no definite conclusions on what happens next are ever reached… and that means they will almost always miss out on the certainty, comfort, hope and call that flow so easily from the pages of Scripture. But their existence – their popularity – tells us something we must not ignore: we need to get better at talking about death.

People of all ages and stages have fears about the future. The very old, those struggling with life-limiting conditions are crying out for people to help them prepare for what’s coming next. The bereaved may have received tenderness and care for the first few months but it gets harder to find someone to listen as the years progress. And that applies to believers and non-believers alike. I’ll admit it myself: while I am thoroughly looking forward to life after death, the process of dying terrifies me. I’ve seen people die, it’s not pleasant! But I don’t talk about it much.

So, how can we as Christians – as biblical counsellors – get passing away back on the agenda? Simply by asking the question: how do you feel about death?

I’ve been trying it in recent months and people are often keen to talk. The depressed woman whose quiet thoughts of suicide have been brought out into the open. The terminally ill woman who suddenly admits she can’t quite commit to following Jesus because she knows her husband wouldn’t be with her in heaven. The elderly man whose been wanting someone at church to offer him a lift to the solicitors so he can update his will. The younger man struggling with PTSD who sees honour in the deaths he has witnessed and is terrified his own demise will show how worthless his life truly has been… None of them conversations that would have happened without an invitation to speak about one of the most hidden topics in society today.

It’s not, of course, a question to ask of every person we meet. It’s not a subject to raise in every conversation. But for many there is a tangible sense of relief when the topic is brought up. So few are willing to listen, to pray, to speak.

And, when the listening has taken place, we can be confident that Scripture is packed full of clarity and hope. We can help people see that, in life, there is indeed a time to weep (Ecclesiastes 3:4) but even in the darkness of grief or fear, we have a Shepherd who leads us on (Psalm 23). We can be confident that God’s good, wise and loving sovereignty applies to the length of our lives (Job 14:5) – there is no randomness at play. We can be real about the fact death is linked to the fallenness of this world but confident that death need not be the end (Romans 6:23). We can point to Jesus, the conqueror of death and bringer of life (John 3:16). We can dip into Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians and see the riches that lie ahead. And how wonderful to be able to point people to the reality that, one day, death will be no more (Revelation 21:4).

So why not open the door to conversation with someone you care about? Or why not begin with yourself? See what is sitting in your heart and share it with someone you love. Let’s take the conversation of death beyond the Death Cafés and embed it in the community of the church where love and life hold sway. And, instead of merely sharing views, let’s go further and encourage others to embrace the hope that Jesus brings and join with believers across the globe in saying:

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”