The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Our service today has a sombre feeling, deep, sober and solemn. The altars are draped in black, the colour of mourning. Our minds are fixed on those who have died, our relations and friends, our associates and colleagues, our neighbours, and countless people whom we have never known but of whose deaths we have heard.
Since this time last year, so many people have died: at violent hands, or at their own hands; through illness or poverty or deprivation; far younger than might have been expected. Yet others have died after a long life. Then death might seem timely, appropriate, a solution. Even then, when the moment comes, the fact of death provides its inevitable element of surprise, of shock.
In one the chapels of the Abbey, there is a depiction of death, the grim reaper, emerging from a vault below carved statues. A husband is holding his young wife in his arms, and holding out his hands to fend off the spear that the image of death appears to be aiming at the heart of his wife. She was Lady Elizabeth Nightingale and she died in the 18th century in childbirth. She is still commemorated here. We all face the fact of death and we shall not be able to escape its reality when the moment comes. We should be prepared. 'Live each day as if 'twere thy last,' as the hymn says.
Many of us this evening will be thinking of particular people close to us who have died recently. I think of a member of the Abbey congregation, who died very recently. She was well into her 90s. She lived near here and attended faithfully every Sunday for decades the service at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning. She and her neighbour and friend had been coming here since their church in Smith Square closed more than forty years ago. Her friend was here celebrating All Saints' yesterday morning as usual. Death at a ripe old age or after a long illness sometimes comes as a friend. But I think also of someone we knew who died suddenly just recently in his late 50s of a heart attack just a month before his young wife was expecting their first child. Death then seems cruel.
So it does when all the passengers and crew of a plane die in Egypt on their way home to St Petersburg after a holiday. And so it does when people young and old die in a civil war which will achieve nothing except terrible destruction, in Syria, or in Libya, or in Nigeria, or in Sudan, or in so many other places. So it does when a lone gunman with a grudge against a school or his teachers or his contemporaries and a thirst for revenge bursts in and shoots indiscriminately a dozen of the people he encounters at random. Death then seems cruel. So it did a hundred years ago when 1.5 million Armenians suffered death at the hands of their neighbours in a meaningless act of inter-communal, inter-faith violence.
These deaths are tragic. We mourn all those who have died. We are impoverished by their loss. As John Donne said,
'No man is an island
entire of itself: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.'
From our perspective it seems that death always wins. Everyone faces death, rich and poor, king and vassal, good and bad, holy man or woman and sinner, all face death. So death is the final conqueror. But that is not so. If death were the end, if life were simply snuffed out, if all the history and associations of the dead were extinguished and were no more, if there were no hope whatever of renewed association, of reunion, how tragic would death be. But our Christian faith assures us that death is not the end, rather that death is the gateway to life eternal, the necessary step towards our greatest fulfilment.
Despite the sombre mood of today's Eucharist, the black drapes and the solemn music, our celebration is shot through with life and light and hope. The promise for us today is that death does not have the final victory, that life is triumphant over death.
St Peter, the prince of the apostles and our patron saint, believed he had evidence enough to proclaim that death had been defeated, that life had triumphed. St Peter begins his first letter by celebrating this truth: 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.'
He had witnessed his Lord and friend, Jesus, whom he had recognised to be the Christ, dying on the cross and being buried. Then Peter was with John when they discovered on the first Easter morning that the stone had been rolled away and the grave was empty. Later that day, Peter was with the other apostles when they saw the Lord Jesus come into the Upper Room where they were hiding and greet them with words of peace. And Peter was there when Jesus said to the disciples, as we heard in the Gospel reading this afternoon, 'Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me: that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.'
We offer in this Holy Eucharist to God the Father the Body and Blood of our dying and risen Lord Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice on the Cross offers eternal hope and new life to each and to all: to those who have died and to us who have entered into his death in our baptism and live now the new life that he has won for us. For the departed, we pray with confidence and hope, 'Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.'
At the end of the service, as the clergy leave, the choir will sing the beautiful words that conclude the requiem mass, words addressed to the departing soul of the dead person. They are powerful words, words that a priest addresses to a dying person, words I have uttered many times to dying parishioners and relations. They are words of comfort and hope.
In paradisum deducant te angeli: may the angels lead you to paradise.
'Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul, in the name of God the Father who created thee, in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for thee, in the name of the Holy Spirit who sanctified thee. May the angels of God receive thee and thy portion this day be in paradise. Where Lazarus is poor no longer, there may you have eternal rest.'