I have huge respect for Christopher Idle. I love the hymns he writes. And he's a godly man with a wise, pastoral heart. I was searching for some of his hymns, when I found something rather different.
Doubtless, many readers of this will be familiar with Henry Scott Holland's poem Death is Nothing at all. For those who don't know it:
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,
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.
Fascinatingly, Wikipedia says (at time of writing - and, sadly, without citing a source) that the poem "is often delivered as part of the liturgy at funeral and memorial services in a more or less truncated form, despite being wrenched out of context, from a sermon in which these words represent how we'd like death to be, instead of something which wrecks and shatters lives". That's fascinating, because it's a classic example of the way in which meaning cannot be considered without a context. If that Wikipedia article is right, the poem is actually designed to make the point that death is very much real, and separates us from those we love.
[Update January 2009: Since writing this I found the full text of Henry Scott Holland's sermon. See http://www.oakleys.org.uk/blog/2009/01/king_of_terrors_death_still_not_n... for more.]
Anyway, I found Christopher Idle reflecting on Scott Holland's poem. Pastorally, he doesn't like to use it at a funeral, because it speaks things that are not true that need to be unsaid fairly quickly afterwards. Pastorally, he doesn't want to refuse to use it, because people like it for the comfort it offers and he doesn't want to be heard to refuse comfort. So (true to form), he's penned his own alternative that can be offered to families who want a poem like that.
He says it can be altered, reproduced and used at will, and it seems to be nowhere else on the internet. Seeing as it deserves wider exposure, I thought I'd reproduce it here:
Death is sometimes our enemy, sometimes our friend.
As an enemy, it may shatter our lives, cut short our time, diminish our families and circle of friends We do not often invite it to come, notrchoose the time of its arrival. In this world we do have enemies, the Scriptures says death is the last.
Yet for the Christian, even death has lost its sting; Christ has made it a friend in spite of itself. Its victory is empty; its triumph will soon pass; it cannot have the last word. But it may still become our helper; not only a milestone but a signpost. It may lead us back to God if we have wandered away, or towards him if we have often been distant.
Death is a time for listening. Listening to friends, reading their words, listening to memories, hearing their music, listening to God in the quiet of my heart.
Death is a time for speaking. Telling the joys, memories past, telling of hopes, partly fulfilled; telling of growing and travelling, learning and finding, laughter and tears, a time for talk and a time for stories.
Death is a time for silence. When the words fail, sitting alone or quiet with my friends, watching or waiting, thinking and looking, the silence of prayer.
Death is a time for loving. Love never fails, love to the end; love all who love me and those who do not; love to heal wounds, love to accept, love to build bridges, love to forgive and know I’m forgiven. Love that is from God; God who is love; God who has first loved me.
Christopher Idle 1998