Death is not nothing

Fri, 15/08/2008 - 10:22 -- James Oakley
Death - nothing? At all?
Image Credit: Mark Faviell

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 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

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Laura Davidge's picture
Submitted by Laura Davidge on

How strange that Henry Scot Holland's poem seems to almost duplicate that of St Augustin - Love never disappears. Since the one by St Augustin was written in the 7th century I wonder who can claim to have written it first. Tut tut Henry Scott Holland!!!!!

Darwin84's picture
Submitted by Darwin84 on

Really very informative! Thanks! I just needed that info! Searched for it by torrents search engine, but failed to find. Thus, thanks for sharing!

Bob K's picture
Submitted by Bob K on

Both Holland's and Idle's passages have their merits, but overall I dislike the apparent agenda and effect of Christopher Idle's alternative passage. Idle's passage tells me that death can only be processed or understood within the context of Christian belief. It reinforces a puritanical, almost medieval view of life that says for humans, life is fleeting and ephemeral, and lacks meaning except so far as it serves and honors God. In Idle's passage, Death (with a capital D) is anthropomorphosized as a negative, powerful being that works on us all; Idle seems to deify death, at least partially--though God's promise of heavenly redemption overpowers Death in the end. Between this and Holland's passage, I prefer Holland's. I dislike Idle's passage because it serves Idle's agenda of reinforcing his version of Christianity more than it offers comfort to the grieving, which in my opinion is more needed when death comes. We know that after someone dies, family and friends will certainly be grieving; they will feel lost, scared, alone and powerless, unsure of how to continue with their lives. At this time, the grieving don't need a sermon and an exhortation to hurry up and get right with the wrathful, Judgement-Day God of the Old Testament. They need comfort, and within the Christian context, reassurance that death is but a passage to the welcoming love of Jesus from the New Testament. Idle should have focused on that, which it seems is most important when people are hurting. Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

Marshall's picture
Submitted by Marshall on

I arrived here after googling, "am I the only person who dislikes, the 'Death is Nothing' poem?" It was very interesting to learn of the author's origional intent. 

I remember this poem being read at my dear grandfather's funeral. It in no way comforted me. While I am confident I will see him again, I remember thinking to myself: "this is a pack of lies." He's not in the next room. I have many times longed for his advice, or just to spend a day with him working in the field or garden, or fishing, or just having coffee together the way we used to. I could've used his quiet strength and steady wisdom quite a few times over the last year. It wasn't there. I can't. He's not here. I cherish the times we shared, I love him so much and I am thankful for his legacy, but this in no way even comes close to him being present with me. Death is a terrible thing.

I know I'll see him again, but it will probably be a long time before that happens. Even though it has only been 2 years, that's far longer than I ever want to be seperated from someone I love that much. 

James Oakley's picture
Submitted by James Oakley on

1 Corinthians 15 tells us that death is the last enemy to be destroyed. It doesn't belong in this world, and one day it will be dealt with. Deep down, we know it's a lie when we hear that all is well and nothing has really happened.

Your grandfather sounds like a very special person. I hope the pain starts to fade a little before too long, so you can enjoy those precious memories and look forward to seeing him again that little bit more.

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