River of Death
By the Revd Dr Peter Sanlon
One of the most striking features of our culture is the closeting away of death. Many people today get to adulthood never having seen a person die – something that in previous generations would have been a normal part of homelife. Funeral services at crematoriums are carefully designed to shield mourners from the reality of death. At the most extreme spectrum of this the service can be turned into a Disney like experience, with superstitious new age mystical views of angels and light thrown in for good measure. It is far from uncommon for people to bemused at the waves of sadness which flow over them after a bereavement – medical treatment for depression replaces the age old recognition of the healthy reality of grief.
As Christians we should have sympathy for a culture that fears death – the end of this life and entrance to the next is a solemn matter. Christian in Pilgrim’s Process found crossing the river of death terrifying. Later in the story we read of how another believer feared death: ‘Mr. Standfast … said, “This river has been a terror to many; yea, the thoughts of it also have often frightened me. The waters indeed are to the palate bitter, and to the stomach cold; yet I see myself now at the end of my journey; my toilsome days are ended.” Now his countenance changed; and after he had said, “Take me, for I come unto thee”, he ceased to be seen of them.’
Pilgrims do not seek the false comfort provided by secular culture’s avoidance or Disneyfication of the grave – but even we who know that Jesus is the good shepherd who will carry us home recognise that there is a serious enemy to be faced at the end of this life. Jesus has conquered that enemy, and in many ways all of this life is a preparation to wade across that river. As we comfort those who grieve, let us comfort them with the comfort Jesus has given us (2 Cor 1:4).
The Red Dr Peter Sanlon is the rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells.