There are different kinds of near-death experiences. There are ‘end of life’ experiences, when people at their death-bed report being drawn towards a certain kind of light, or sent back into the world of the living, or seeing their own bodies lying there from an out-of-body perspective. I’ve never gone through one of these.
There are ‘near miss’ experiences when something happens that could have been catastrophic, but wasn’t. I can think of twice when I have driven at a reasonable speed straight through a red light and only realised when it was too late. Once was years ago at a major crossroads in St Albans – I don’t know why it happened; I must have just been distracted. I could have killed myself and many others with me. I was terrified afterwards with a kind of retrospective shock; the full force of ‘what if?’
The second time was only a few weeks ago when I went through a red light at a pedestrian crossing here in Chelsea. It wasn’t my fault. I saw it as I was going through it, and I couldn’t work out why I hadn’t spotted it before. I was so perturbed that I drove back, to discover that one of those beautiful hanging flower baskets had been hung by the council on a lamp-post just a couple of feet before the light. I guess when it was hung it had no flowers, but they had since grown and completely obscured the red traffic light. It was genuine concern that drove me, like a good citizen, to call the police, and the local council, and whoever else the next person referred me to. But no-one could deal with it before Monday morning (this was Friday night) or felt that it was urgent enough to find a way of sorting it out. I gave up. I should have gone and cut the flowers myself; but then I’d have probably got arrested.
Anyway, the third kind of near-death experience is the much more everyday ‘intimation of one’s own mortality’ that catches us now and then, often for small and unexpected reasons. I had one of these last week. There was a Mass at Westminster Cathedral offered for the deceased clergy of the Diocese. As I processed in with the other concelebrants, we walked past the Book of Remembrance that was open on the relevant day: a single page for each day of the year, with the names of the clergy beautifully inscribed on the page for the day of their death. And it struck me with great force as I walked past: my name will be in there one day. Probably in quite a few years; but possibly in just a few months or weeks or days (who knows?). But however long it takes, there my name will be – in that very book.
I know this isn’t an unusual experience. It was just very concrete. Every so often I think about death; but I don’t usually have such a simple reminder of how thin the line is between now and then – just a few moments away; just a few letters on the page.
I know these everyday reminders of death are more common in rural communities (or at least slightly less urban ones), where you as an individual have a particular link with a particular graveyard. I’m not saying that you meditate on it every day; but it must be similarly sobering just to think, ‘This is the place where my body will lie one day'; that death is not just an abstract idea but a concrete destiny.
It reminds me of a village I visited just outside Salzburg. I’m used to seeing old village churches in England with the graveyard at the side of the church somewhere. But here the parish church was literally surrounded by the graves of the parishioners. There was a row directly around the external wall of the church; then a path around this row; and then more graves extending out to the boundary wall. So as soon as you walked into the grounds of the church you walked past the graves of your parents, your ancestors, your fellow parishioners, the townsfolk; and you knew that you would lie there one day. My friend said this was typical in small Austrian villages. It wasn’t at all oppressive; it was as if the church itself (and everything that happened within its walls) was living within this larger communion; as if you congregated with your neighbours and friends and family to pray each Sunday, and this congregating just continued after death.
There aren’t many Catholic churches with graveyards at their side in Britain today. The nearby parish in Fulham is probably one of the few. I wish we had a few more, and that we were more connected in these concrete ways with those who have gone before us.