To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Philippians 1:21
Can you imagine ever saying to a friend “Fancy popping down to the Death Cafe for an hour this evening?”
No, neither can I. But something rather like that is, apparently, becoming quite popular. An article in today’s Times by Rev Ian Bradley, a Church of Scotland minister, describes a growing movement of people who like to get together, to enjoy one another’s company, to eat cakes and drink tea and, yes, to talk about death. It’s reckoned there are some 1500 such gathering places around the world.
It all began in 2011with a man called Jon Underwood, who opened his home in Hackney for just this reason. I get the feeling that calling these meeting-places “cafes” is probably going a bit far - I don’t think you’ll find one on your local high street. They’re more like what Christians might call house-groups, meeting at agreed intervals.
But as far as I can tell, they weren’t actually Christian at all in conception, though Christians have spotted their value and begun to start them.
No: they seem to be a general response to people’s need to be more open and realistic about death, a healthy reaction in fact to our culture’s tendency to treat death as the great unmentionable, the ultimate brush-it-under-the-carpet reality. They are not morbid, just honest.
If ever there is a subject where Christians have something to teach our wider society, death is surely it. As a minister I have had to confront this many times over the years. I think of myself walking into an old people’s home to visit an elderly lady, only to be greeted by the staff nurse with an unctuous smile and the whispered words, “I’m afraid she has got her wings” - she couldn’t bring herself to say simply “She has died.” (Although, to be fair, quite likely she was just wanting to protect me.)
I can picture myself sitting by the bed of a man who was dying, who knew perfectly well he was dying, and all of whose family, friends and neighbours knew perfectly well he was dying. It was toe-squirmingly awful to hear the procession of well-wishers reassuring him that “we’ll soon have you up and running about, old chap!” as, having done their duty, they departed with thinly disguised relief.
Paul put the Christian perspective perfectly in this powerful little verse from Philippians 1. If I may paraphrase: “As far as I am concerned, life is all about Jesus, and death can only mean something even better!”
Paul believed that in Jesus death was a defeated enemy - this, not in some symbolic “spiritual” sense only, but in the plain factual sense that on the first Easter morning this man who had died on Good Friday, was really, actually and bodily alive again. And he would never die again (unlike poor Lazarus!). Death has been dealt a death-blow!
Come to think of it, perhaps the idea behind death cafes, Christian ones at any rate, is not that new.
You hear sometimes of people cheerfully planning their own funeral - they want it to genuinely reflect the people they are and the beliefs they hold. Even more, they want it to declare the message of eternal life through Christ.
I knew a woman once who, approaching death while still in her thirties, held occasional “getting ready for heaven” parties. She would gather friends around her and they would talk, sing, pray, eat, drink, laugh and cry together.
And one of my privileges as a minister is to conduct funerals where I can, without hypocrisy, send the dead person off with loudly proclaimed verses like John 14:2: Jesus said to his disciples, “I am going to my Father’s house to prepare a place for you”. Or Revelation 21:3-4 (my all-time favourite): “God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes (yay!). There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain...” It’s amazing how still and breathlessly attentive a council crematorium chapel can become as glorious words like those echo around the ceiling.
If Philippians 1:21 means anything at all, it’s this: life in Christ is wonderful; but death in Christ is even better. Can you say Amen to that?
Lord, I shrink from death because life in Christ is good and there is so much to enjoy. But please burn into my soul the truth that, though it may not seem like it, death in Christ is better still. Amen.