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The Great Unmentionable

The Great Unmentionable

Monday March 16 2020

Continuing the series marking the 50th anniversary of the Church of Scotland SRT, Dr Murdo Macdonald considers the issues surrounding the end of life in the 21st century.


Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.  His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah. Genesis 25:7- 11 (NIV)


OLD age is a gift, but even with the best of modern medical care, few of us can expect to come close to the great age which Abraham achieved as recorded in these verses in Genesis. I have to admit that I can’t help a wry smile when, later in Genesis, Abraham’s grandson Jacob describes his own 130 years as being “few and difficult”! (Genesis 47: 9).

However, most of us expect that we will see out our “three score years and ten” (Psalm 90: 10). Life expectancy in many societies, including our own, continues to rise: experts predict that the average child born in a developed country today can expect to live to be 100. This, of course has many consequences.

Humans have long dreamed of cheating death, of achieving physical immortality- there have even been serious scientific experiments which have attempted this. Where would most of us be without some form of medical augmentation- be that a heart valve or a new hip joint? However, although technological intervention can postpone the inevitable, as Benjamin Franklin quipped, death and taxes remain life’s only certainties.

Despite that, death too often remains the great unmentionable. Many in our culture - including in the church - are uncomfortable with death, and it can be difficult to encourage people to face up to its inevitability. We also need to acknowledge that the end of life is much more than the moment of death; as our lives are increasingly lived online, there is a need to talk to our loved ones about our wishes for our “digital afterlife”- what to do about Facebook accounts, for example.

Many congregations are waking up to the need to have specific ministries for those in our communities who are coming towards the end of their lives. Some have found it helpful to work with organisations such as Anna Chaplains and Faith in Older People, as well as seeking support from more specialised agencies for issues such as dementia or loneliness

This discomfort around end of life issues can sometimes be reinforced by modern medicine- there can be a sense that every death represents a medical failure, rather than being willing to accept that death is a normal part of life. We are all grateful that medical interventions are often helpful and life enhancing. However, it is also necessary to recognise that there are times when ensuring comfort during a final illness is more appropriate than repeated life- prolonging interventions which may do nothing to enhance the experience of the end of the life of our loved one.

The Bible passage with which we began is a beautiful example of a life well lived and a death well died. The Scripture narrative makes it clear that Abraham was far from perfect, and the story of the fractured relationship between his two sons in the preceding chapters often makes painful reading. Yet, as we read here, at the end, Isaac and Ishmael, bitter rivals for the promises of the covenant, came together to honour and mourn for their father, and to bury him with the wife he loved.

The Bible encourages us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and also to mourn with those who mourn. We can all learn lessons from a good death, while affirming and celebrating the benefits which medical technologies bring.

Dr Murdo Macdonald is Policy Officer of the Church of Scotland SRT.