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Friday, 6 April 2012

Death is Dead…

I touched my first and only corpse when I was a catering student in a Blackpool Hospital.  

The “Who Cares” death

They thought I needed to see more of the world than vats of municipal stew, so I did brief stints in different departments. One of them was with the hospital porters, who had a job called the Silver Bullet run. When doctors had pronounced somebody dead, and presumably no relatives were coming, the body would be collected in this silver coffin on wheels. So I rocked up with this other bloke and moved this (still warm) old lady. Even though she was tiny, she seemed to weigh a ton. We did it as respectfully as we could behind the ominous drawn curtain, and then wheeled her down the endless corridors to the morgue.

But it didn’t really affect me. Who was she to me? (I hope I don’t go out unmourned like that)

I have been around death a fair bit.

The “Near Miss” death

As I child I had one near death experience. This town called Baldock had just built a new leisure centre, opened by the Queen no less, and it had one of the UK’s first wave machines. I used to go there all the time.

But the first time I didn’t realise that this wave machine was serious, not just some splashy pile of plop. The warning chimes went off and I stayed where I was. It started quickly and before I knew it I wasn’t rising with the waves any more, but getting thrown from foaming peak to foaming peak like a human shuttlecock. Soon I had a few serious mouthfuls of water, and they kept coming until I began to sink. I realised- sleepily, surreally- that I was probably going to die. I felt a strange calm.

The next thing was that I had been pulled out by this lifeguard, and was lying on the poolside, coughing. He had been doing his job, watching the cocky children, and saved my life. The everydayness of the incident blew me away; he just asked if I was okay, and I sheepishly said I was. He scanned me, and let me get back in after the waves had gone.

I thought there would be some kind of near death inquest, forms to be filled in, my hysterical mother shipped in by limousine, and numerous phone calls to Psycho Wave Machines Inc, by her royal highness. But there was only climbing back in to the roars of laughter of my friends.

Only at Baldock Leisure Centre

I had two or three potentially near death experiences, because I’m a wazuk.

I lived in Botswana briefly and went to the local school (yes, yes, okay, the Redskin Joe one).

During the morning break I liked nothing better than the game called “crawl through the rain culvert and kick away some boarding at the end”. This involved what it said- crawling through a corrugated metal tube about 2 feet in diameter, set into a concrete bridge in a rain trench, and kick the hastily assembled boards 20 metres down at the other end. I always wondered why the African kids weren’t playing it, and it was only the sunburnt British kids and this mad Dutch kid, who thought it was great.

Well- that would have been due to the possible Black Mamba snakes, scorpions, and the general cornucopia of evil wildlife that like nothing better than a cool culvert to hide in. I had about seven great days of endlessly going in and out the tunnel, before the staff room decided to investigate the small crowd of over excited expats on the edge of the playing field who gathered every day…..

“Who is it?”

“Its that mad Dutch child, some other colonial loonies, and…oh, the permanently red and sweaty kid with Spanish copper hair?”

“That really annoying one who kept on about there being a Spitfire wreck in the bushes, until we all had to go out, and found it was the control panel from a digger and some old flowerpots?”


“Right. He's dead”

Minutes later, a hyperventilating teacher hauled me out by my ear and asked if I ate lead based paint as a hobby. Looking back, I was lucky to have lived.

Not in the school bushes

 Another time I was in a car bombing down a road. After a corner, we saw a car transporter backing into a scrapyard. We slammed on the anchors in this old MK1 Fiesta, but nothing happened for a long, long time. We ended up feet from a sure decapitation, when the brake drums finally found a grip. It was new underpants all around.

The “End of an Era” death

1996 was a bad year. I lost both grandparents at either end of it. My grandfather went into very quick decline while in hospital. I was in Bible College, and it took my mother ages to convince the religious cupcake on the end of the phone that I might have to be excused from the ponderous sermon of the director. Somebody dropped me at Swansea bus station so I could get the national Express coach to Stevenage. The ride took forever, and I was too late getting there. He had passed. I hadn’t had a chance to say anything.

A similar situation with my grandmother. She collapsed and died one Christmas Eve before I arrived for a family Christmas. She was long gone when I arrived from my delivery job.

I couldn’t say all that needed saying, and I was robbed of two of the best people in the world. I don’t know whether it is a good or bad thing that as the seasons turn that I see more and more of the wisdom they lived by, the wisdom I wrote off as boring at the time. It’s a dead victory, getting it now, now I cant discuss it with them.

Their simple life, stripped from all yearning and intrigue. The choosing of jobs that weren’t exciting or taxing so they had quality mental time for family. The quiet anarchy of my grandfather, telling his ship building foreman to get stuffed when he was told he had to put his hand up to go to the toilet like a little boy, the “sure as eggs are eggs” disdain and daily rebellion he showed his officers during the war (even though he never spoke of it), ensuring he was never promoted. At the end of the war, when they thought he had learnt his place, they offered him a Commission in India, and he said “no thanks” and went to work as a storeman in Jones Cranes for 40 years. I mean, probably just to see the pipe fall from the mouth of Colonel Fortress-Buttress.

I'd rather eat my own eyeballs, sir

I never had chance to high five him. Etc.

The “Up Close and Personal” death

Two members of the band I was in died long before their time. One was only 17. He died in an awful car crash.

The other, whom I was much closer to, committed suicide. He committed suicide in the same manner and exact same place as his father, although his father was unsuccessful in finding death and only managed to massively damage his brain. My mother used to look after him in a psychiatric hospital.

My friend had been a drug addict a long time, and I hadn’t realised. I hadn’t seen him for some time. I don’t know whether I could have done anything or not, but I know two things; his suicide, like all suicides, was a final solution to a temporary problem, and his dying destroyed his family and has haunted me daily. I can’t tell you how much I miss him. His missing form the world has made it a sadder pace.

I stood with some dear friends at 6.00am this morning, watching the sunrise in the Milton Keynes Tree Cathedral with my little boy. We were having a Good Friday celebration service, remembering Jesus’ death.

For the first time, I was actually quite moved. Before, Good Friday services were either tied up in dead, stupid, systematic theology, so the whole thing sounded like some business transaction on Pluto, or I was too overwhelmed with truth that I numbed myself.

I was thinking about the manner of Jesus’ death, and the people behind it. The Jewish chief priests and ruling council, most of whom probably – at some level- knew Jesus was the Messiah, conspired to kill him in the most dishonest and foul way. They were furious and inconvenienced that His coming and mission did not include ministerial upgrades, parties for their type of person, or a rabid Jewish war God on top of an elephant leading legions of angels to destroy the Romans.

Pontius Pilate, the empirical top dog of the area, who claimed he did not know truth and – humanly speaking- had the choice of life or death over Jesus. At one stage in the story there is a faint hope that you think he may let Jesus go- John 19 verses 6-13......but he doesn’t.

I am reminded on a great film called Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise.

It tells the story of the plot to kill Hitler by Wehrmacht officers and German politicians and Police during WW2. The characters devise a cunning plan to kill Hitler and then remove the Nazi state by the titular code name. Under the premise that the SS have attempted to kill Hitler, regular German troops put Berlin into lockdown and arrest all Nazi state apparatus and SS command chains. There is something astonishing about the images of German soldiers arresting Nazis and driving them away in trucks. You feel the end of the war, and the horror of Nazism, is at hand.

Finally, the whole outcome of the situation, and especially the fate of the vile Goebbels, rests on the orders of a German army officer. Will he believe Valkyrie is real, and (effectively) end the war- or will he go with Goebbels?

He chooses wrong, of course. And commits Europe to years more death and misery.

But Pilate…can you image the scene if he stared at Jesus, saw who He really was, and realisation dawns on his face? His orders shouted to his officers?

“Centurion! Raise the guard! Disperse this crowd and put this Jesus in a cell for His own protection! And bring me the chief priests and that lowlife Herod- now”

I’m aware the analogy is deeply flawed, and the fact Pilate was a self serving, spiritual coward was in our best interests because he killed Jesus and thus allowed our reconciliation and forgiveness on the cross…..but I’m driving at something else.

That were all too scared, and loaded with selfish agenda and immutable worldviews, too take the time to look at death and what it could mean for our life now, and in eternity.

Geoff the Mad Calvinist

One of my Bible College teachers, an ordained minister, was mad. Even though he was an arch Calvinist, and made us read this sick tome called Los Berkhof’s Systematic Theology- which I called “a spiteful, smug pile of poodle vomit” for short- he was OK.


His preaching was unhinged, and involved visual props. One service he acted out Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the tomb by opening a broom closet and unleashing tons of badly stowed mops and buckets. You had to be there.

Anyway, apparently during funeral services he would scream at the grave of the departed, saying "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Cor 15 v55)

Yes, it’s inappropriate. Yes, he is hijacking somebodies last mortal exit to insert a potentially misapplied scripture. Yes, one would wonder whether he had a catastrophic mental illness.

But he was on to something. There is something disgusting and cruel about death. I would like to see its arse kicked and humiliated, along with its awful minions, like cancer. He was angry. And he wasn’t going to let polite smalltalk and sentimental time wasting niceties clog up a liminoid event.

Death is the big cheese. I would wager it is the most leveling, frightening, loaded, theory busting, put your money where your mouth is thing on Earth (and beyond). Nobody who has time to consider its arrival even for a millisecond is cocky, or so sure of their creed (or not) they are unmoved.

But I’m sure of this. People who follow Jesus don’t have to be scared of it. It holds no power because we believe that we go on.

It also makes sense of all the other deaths, some of which I have alluded to, because a number of amazing things happened on the cross.

I felt frightened and alone and confused by most of the above brushes and themes of death, if not at the time, in reflection now.

People like me call Good Friday good because of what God did for us. But none of the followers of Jesus thought it good at the time. It felt like the end of the world and that all the good in the world had gone forever.

It is that feeling of desperate hopelessness that is destroyed in the cross and what happened next…but we have Saturday to go through first.

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