by Vanessa Herrick
from Signs of the Times No. 71 - Oct 2018
I read this profound and beautiful book at a single sitting. This is not to suggest that it is an easy read, in the sense that it is ‘lightweight’ or ‘lacking in substance’ - far from it!
It is full of learning, honesty and wisdom - and above all, authenticity. For, Richard Holloway writes as if he is speaking to you from his fireside chair, simply reflecting on death - his own and others’ - and pondering what he has discovered through his rich and varied life and ministry.
Neither is the book limited to a description of Holloway’s own experience. Rather, he weaves into the tapestry of his own and others’ stories, a vibrant and relevant collection of anecdotes and literary, film and musical allusions which complement his observations in enlightening ways. In pride of place is poetry (Donne, Shakespeare, Auden, Larkin and McNiece amongst others) which, for Holloway, is what ‘connects’ for him in his old age. Indeed, this intertwining of personal experience and reflection with reference to both the arts and the sciences - the refined wisdom of the polymath with just the right proportion of sincerity, humility and integrity - leaves you wanting more. It is erudite without being overwhelming, intellectually stretching without being hard work.
In its 166 pages, the book covers a wealth of topics around the subject of death. In his opening chapters, Holloway identifies our culture’s reluctance to face or even speak of death and suggests that the ‘last bus’ has been turned into ‘an agency for the postponement of death rather than the enhancement of life’ (p.20). Whilst religion keeps the idea and reality of death alive, for many older people (including himself) ‘church can be an alienating rather than a consoling experience.’ (p.25). In later chapters, Holloway offers an expansive exploration of ideas about life after death, including the classic metaphor of casting off on the last sea journey; the testimony of those who have had near death experiences; the spirit or soul living on after the body has decayed; ghosts and occult phenomena; the Hindu understanding of reincarnation; Christianity and Islam's understanding of a Day of Judgment; purgatory; and cryo-preservation (and its potentially disastrous social and environmental consequences). In the final two chapters, the emphasis shifts to the complexity of grief, especially in relation to the death of a child.
The highlight of the book is chapter three on forgiveness. Movingly illustrated by the biblical story of Peter’s failure and redemption by Jesus, Holloway stresses the importance of forgiveness of others and of self, combined with an ability to be compassionate towards self and others. Yet he is realistic about the fact that 'some can,' and 'some can't' forgive - with the inevitable consequences of each.
Throughout the book, one has the sense that it is, in part, Holloway’s last reflection on his love-hate relationship with the Church and, indeed, with the Christian faith. The residue of faith remains, as does his valuing of the pastoral ministry he has been privileged to exercise; but so, does the sense of exile and, for him, the uncertainty of resurrection. He acknowledges that he neither desires nor expects life after death (p. 86) but nevertheless hopes he will face it with courage.