I am at the stage in life when I read the death announcements in the daily paper – in my case The Times. Now that I have passed my three-score and ten, the numbers of those I have outlived are beginning to grow – but still very slowly. Many now go on unto their nineties, if not beyond.
Yesterday, however, I was struck by one death announcement in particular. It concerned Professor R.J. (‘Sam’) Berry, a distinguished scientist who for many years (1974-2000) had been professor of genetics at University College London, and who died on 28 March 2018. He was also a committed Christian and had served as a lay member of the Synod of the Church of England. Although I had never met him, I had known of him as an apologist for the Christian faith. In that regard probably his two most significant books were God and the Biologist: Personal Exploration of Science and Faith (Apollos 1996) and God’s Book of Works: The Nature and Theology of Nature (T & T Clark 2003). However, the book that I knew was at the very popular end of the market: Adam and the Ape: A Christian approach to the theory of evolution (Falcon 1975). As a young preacher I was grateful for his insights when I preached my way through the opening chapters of Genesis. The death announcement made no mention of these writings – nor for that matter did it mention his age. But there was a specific mention of his faith. For having listed the names of his loved ones, the date of his service of thanksgiving, and the names of the charities to which donations were welcome, the announcement ended with a quotation from Phil 1.23: “With Christ, which is far better”. What a great way to affirm faith in death!
Interestingly, when my maternal grandfather died on 21 September 1962, the death announcement in The Daily Telegraph ended with the same words “With Christ which is far better”. When my father died on 23 February 2000, his death announcement in The Times ended with Paul’s exclamation: “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Cor 15.57). I trust that when I die my family will ensure that my death announcement will end with a similar affirmation of faith.
Sadly, it is not something which most Christians do today. For instance, the day that the death of Sam Berry was announced was also the day that that the death of an Anglican team vicar was announced. I have no doubt that this Anglican minister was just as firm in his Christian faith as was Sam Berry – and yet there was no explicit reference to his faith.
Why, I wonder, do Christians not go in for affirming their faith in this way? Is it the cost that puts people off? Depending on the length of the Bible verse it could cost another £100 or more – but frankly within the overall cost of most funerals, £100 is not all that much. Or do people think that ending a death announcement with a Bible verse is old-fashioned? I don’t know. It is admittedly a little unusual – but having said that, in The Times and in The Daily Telegraph – the section announcing births, marriages and deaths is always headed with a Bible verse provided by the Bible Society. Yesterday’s was from Psalm 34.4 (GNB): “I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me; he freed me from all my fears”.
1 Cor 15.57 and Phil 1.23 are, of course, not the only possible Bible verses to include in a death announcement. Other possibilities include “I know that my Redeemer lives.. and I shall see God” (Job 19.25,26); Jesus said: “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14.19); “Nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 8.39 GNB); “with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4.17); “God has given us a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1.3).
In a world which is largely “without God and without hope” there is a lot to be said for taking every opportunity to share the difference that Christ makes to living – and to dying. What a difference it might make if every Christian affirm their faith in death – or should I say, “in life”!