During the coronavirus pandemic - at a time of immense public anxiety and uncertainty - Sr Margaret Atkins OSA, reflects on how deaths from COVID-19 are much more than just statistics, each is the death of a precious, irreplaceable human being.
During the coronavirus pandemic – at a time of immense public anxiety and uncertainty – Sr Margaret Atkins, of the Order of Saint Augustine, reflects on how deaths from COVID-19 are much more than just statistics, each is the death of a precious, irreplaceable human being.
About the author: Sr Margaret is a Canoness of St Augustine in the community at Boarbank Hall in Cumbria. She was a Senior Lecturer in Theology at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds. She has particular interests in virtue ethics, in the ethics of healthcare and of the environment, and in St Augustine.
A death from COVID-19 matters, but not because it is a death from COVID-19. It does not matter because it is a statistic. It matters because it is the death of a precious, irreplaceable human being.
I went to my first virtual funeral this week. It was deeply moving: the person whose loss we were mourning, Fr David Sanders OP, had been a close friend for many years, and a huge influence on the most formative part of my adult life.
He had a great gift for friendship, and we were part of a circle of friends which he did much to keep alive. The simple funeral Mass was conducted with gentle solemnity by his Prior and brothers. There was a tangible sense of his family and friends, including his own Dominican brethren who could not be physically present, being together, united in a true spiritual communion.
The fact that he had died with the virus was unimportant. All that mattered was to remember and to pray for David, our friend, in all his concrete individuality.
Fr Timothy Radcliffe’s sermon, based on the story of the raising of Lazarus, took friendship as its focus. He quoted the great Dominican Fr Bede Jarrett who described fidelity in friendship is ‘the most beautiful thing on earth’. Jarrett wrote: ‘Our lives are made and marred by our friendships. In the worlds of nature and grace love is more powerful than reason, heart than head, friendship than law.’
Friendship matters, Fr Timothy went on, ‘because it is a sharing in the life of God, the eternal friendship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Every friendship teaches us something about the life of God. That is why we need many friends, many windows into God’s love.’
Fr David always loved meeting people, including the nurses and doctors during his chemotherapy sessions. ‘He was much more interested in them than in his treatment. He was interested in their particularity, their individuality.’ Fr Timothy commented, ‘This gives us a tiny glimpse of how God loves each of us. God does not love humanity in general. God knows the uniqueness of each of us in a way that we do not. When we glimpse that, we cannot but love them.’
Fr David’s death, for which he had been preparing during decades of prayerful religious life, was, when it came, not grim, but very tranquil. Yes, it was deeply sad that he could not be surrounded by his brethren. But he knew he was carried by their prayers and by the prayers of so many others of us. When death was near, he rang Fr Timothy on his mobile to say goodbye. The next day he asked the nurses to let him die in peace. And so he did, slipping gently away.
Fr David had a deep love of Scripture, which he had shared with so many of us. He will have known well the stories of his namesake, the King of Israel. That other David had a weakness for statistics. What had annoyed King Saul most of all was his rival’s supporters singing in triumph about the numbers he had killed in battle: ‘Saul has killed his thousands and David his tens of thousands’.
David was tactless enough to go on to count out two hundred of the foreskins of his Philistine victims as a bride-price for Saul’s daughter (Saul had asked only for one hundred). How ironic then, that David’s lament for Saul’s son, his dearest friend, is so moving and so personal: ‘Jonathan, by your dying I too am stricken, I am desolate for you, Jonathan my brother. Very dear you were to me.’ Had he forgotten that each one of his ten thousands was also a son, a brother, a dearest friend?
David learnt the lesson about statistics a very hard way, when he was punished later on for counting his troops instead of trusting in God, punished, ironically, with a plague.
In a strange way, Fr David’s death has made the crisis much easier. It has helped me to put the virus in its place. A death from COVID-19 matters, but not because it is a death from COVID-19. It does not matter because it is a statistic. It matters because it is the death of a precious, irreplaceable human being. When we remember that, we can take each bereavement as it comes, one at a time, so as not to be overwhelmed.
In 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics, 541,589 deaths were registered in the UK. Would it matter if it had been 541,590? Statistically, not at all. Humanly speaking, it would have made an infinite difference: that specific extra person was the centre of a whole world.
I remember another funeral, of a much younger friend, who died suddenly a decade ago, leaving a wife and small children. The huge church in Cambridge was packed with two thousand mourners, the Mass was moving and beautiful in every way, with a choir that could have been professional, a sanctuary full of clergy, powerful readings, enriched by other languages and even a Jewish prayer.
Emile was honoured for everything that he was: scholar, teacher, family man, friend. I remember thinking then: ‘This is a marvellous occasion, which does justice to a marvellous person. But actually, every single person would be worthy of this: of our honour, our love and our prayers.’ But again, one at a time.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was our English poet with the greatest gift for expressing individuality. He called it the ‘thisness’ – of a bluebell or a kestrel, of a landscape or a river, above all of a human being.
One of his most poignant poems laments the death of Felix Randal, a blacksmith. He evokes him in all his thisness, ‘big-boned and hardy-handsome’, forging a shining shoe for a vast drayhorse. Hopkins describes how this powerful, energetic, impatient, man became gentle through his illness, and how a tenderness grew up between Felix and himself as he ministered to him. The poem uses Felix’s name repeatedly to bring home to the reader this specific, personal, loss. Each specific person, one at a time.
This is a time of great sadness in part because we have been forced to face our mortality. Of course, we knew already that millions of people die every year, that each one of us would die one day. But we have somehow been able to live with the loss of all those elderly people, cancer patients or drowning migrants, without paying it detailed attention.
Now the statistics are turning into human beings. And each of us knows that there but for the grace of God go I. Facing such truths together, with honesty, can only be good. The other side of this is consolation. The sorrow that we feel for each is only the other side of joy and gratitude. We grieve because he or she was immeasurably precious. And for the same reason we are immeasurably blessed by each other, by those who have lived and by those still alive.
When he became ill from cancer, Fr David had said to a friend, ‘I have been preaching on the resurrection for all these years and I had better show that I believe in it.’ Like Felix Randall, and like Emile, he was sustained by Christian hope.
These times are a test for all of us who are believers: can we live out what we profess? And for those among us who are unsure what to believe, this plague brings no new questions about the after-life. It only brings into focus the questions we often prefer to push aside.
Our Sunday prayer list for the deceased was not exceptionally long this week. It also included one of our own Community, a diminutive, indomitable, Irish nurse, with an enormous smile and an even bigger heart, who had helped to found our Sisters in Nigeria, and had lived there for many years. Another unique, precious, irreplaceable, Christian soul. Another life lived faithfully and to the full. Another who will be mourned in all her glorious specificity, and welcomed by name into the Kingdom. And no, she didn’t have any viruses. And that’s not important either.
Find out more about Catholic funerals during the pandemic.