Is death ‘nothing at all’?

Mark Ireland writes: Watching the lying in state of the late Queen, and pondering the incredible devotion of those who queued all night in the cold, has prompted me to read again a sermon preached by Canon Henry Scott Holland in St Paul’s Cathedral after the death of King Edward VII. The late king’s body lay in state in Westminster Hall in May 1910 and was viewed by about a quarter of a million people.

Scott Holland’s sermon before the Lying in State contained these lines which have been read at so many funeral services since:

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed…’

Like many clergy, the request to include these lines in a funeral service always used to make my heart sink—feeling that this was no more than another bit of folk religion, denying the devastating loss of bereavement. Including these lines in a Christian funeral service seemed to make it harder to then speak about the awkward reality of death and how through the painful death of Jesus we can find the hope of resurrection.

Until, that is, I read the whole sermon for the first time and understood these lines in their original context. 

In his original sermon Scott Holland described two very contrasting ways of regarding death. 

First there is the familiar and instinctive recoil from it as embodying the supreme and irrevocable disaster…Nothing leads up to it, nothing prepares for it. It simply traverses every line on which life runs, cutting across every hope on which life feeds…It makes all we do here meaningless and empty…

Scott Holland points out that this view of death is captured in numerous places in the Old Testament, which give us a vocabulary for anguished lament in the face of death.

But then he goes on to describe another aspect altogether which death can wear for us.

It is that which first comes down to us, perhaps, as we look upon the quiet face, so cold and white, of one who has been very near and dear to us…And what the face says to say to us, “Death is nothing at all. It does not count, I have only slipped away into the next room…”

In his sermon Scott Holland makes the crucial point that in the resurrection of Christ both aspects are true.

Our task is to deny neither judgement, but to combine both.

Jesus experienced the awful brutality and finality of death, as his body hung on the cross. And yet because of his resurrection from the dead we know death is not the end, that there is an amazing continuity between life on earth and life in heaven, and that we are surrounded by the communion of saints.

Scott Holland related both aspects to the lying in state of the late King.

Brethren, today these two moods which we have rehearsed are peculiarly ours—the mood of violent recoil, the mood of quiet continuity… Sinister and silent the coffin lies there in the sunlight, and its very pomp of state makes its silence more sinister yet. We shall creep around it in dismay as it lies in Westminster Hall. Is this all that is left?

But then, preaching as he was in the season of Whitsun, he pointed out that the light of the presence of the Holy Spirit banishes the darkness and fear of death. The presence of the Spirit in the life of every believer is the guarantee of what is to come.

In the power of the Spirit we are already passed from death to life. Death is behind us, not in front. “Ye were dead.” “Ye were baptized by the Spirit into Christ’s death.”

Scott Holland ended his sermon not with the bland reassurance that ‘death is nothing at all’ so often quoted, but with a stirring challenge to put to death in our lives the sins which cling to us so easily. 

Stand on the strong Word. In its strength you can even now use your remaining days to bury that which is already dead. You can strip off the clinging garments of decay, the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil… You will find yourself already passed from death to life…you will somehow become aware of what it might mean to become more and more alike to the Lord Jesus, whom you adore, as more and more in the infinite amazement of an ever-growing surprise you learn to see him as he really is. 

Nowadays, if I’m asked to include Scott Holland’s ‘Death is nothing at all’ in a funeral, I am delighted to accept. I find it a great way in to unpacking the two contrasting responses to death—despair and denial, and the hope and challenge that in the death and resurrection of Jesus the finality of death and the continuity of eternal life are brought together.

Mark Ireland is Archdeacon of Blackburn and co-author of several books on mission, evangelism and discipleship.

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

34 thoughts on “Is death ‘nothing at all’?”

  1. “…………and the hope and challenge that in the death and resurrection of Jesus the finality of death and the continuity of eternal life are brought together.”
    Yes. But only for those who repent and believe. Surely a funeral is the right place to include that terrible warning for those in the congregation.
    Phil Almond

  2. Ian
    Thanks again for another very helpful piece.
    Perhaps you could post a link to the sermon on which the poem is based. I cannot find it on the internet.
    As a Reader who takes funerals I aim to offer Christian hope, but never false hope or assurance. As Phil says hope is for those who repent and believe.

  3. When decontextualised, that is, abstracted from the whole import, we can readd into it and extract what we want.
    As for the Queen’s funeral:
    1 There was a stark contrast between, everyone seeking to make much of her but in her death she desired to point to and make much of Christ. Unmistakenly- Exclusively Christian. That seems to have subsequently garnered
    loud silence from the pundits.
    2 One point I found jarring came from the Archbishop of York, referring to the Queen inheriting her faith. Is that the teaching, doctrine, of the CoE? Yes he also mentioned baptism which seemed to be linked to inheriting faith.
    4 Another was from AB oC – all will be subject to judgment – the merciful judgement of God. Without more, it could give out false hope of universalism- all saved. And really will we all meet again? And how about first meeting God?
    (Especially if the dots are joined up to, inheriting faith.)
    5 What also struck home was a sense of order brought out of chaos, harking back to Genesis and foreshadowing the future under the universal reign of the King of Kings our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One. Already ascended to the throne, reigning and ruling.

        • The Bible constantly says God is just in his judgements. For those who trust in him and embrace his Lordship he is truly merciful. The problem is, in a sermon that made many good points, I felt the archbishop opened a door of ambiguity. There is only one mercy seat and it is covered in blood allowing all redeemed by blood access to a throne of mercy and grace.

          Increasingly talk of blood sacrifice atonement is scorned yet it is according to the Bible the only means of averting wrath (judgement is wrath Roms 2)

  4. I have, like Mark, regularly struggled with this passage being chosen for funeral services. I’ve even tried changing some of the words to make it more palatable, but I think now that was both pointless and disrespectful to Holland. I was aware that it was part of a longer whole, but I had never read the whole sermon until today. Although of its time and 3700 (!) words long, it is a largely orthodox and quite moving text. I hadn’t expected that on the basis of the well-known extract. Mark has given us a gift in putting this disembodied text back in its context, and providing a key to using it positively, rather than hoping no-one would notice what it said. Thank you.

  5. I only read the sermon itself quickly but can’t see anything about the ‘ Resurrection of the body’ as per creed and 1 Cor 15? Have I missed it as it seems rather germane to the whole question?

    • I think that is a good observation. We need to be aware that the recovery of the NT belief in the resurrection of the body has been a relatively recent though vital element of biblical studies.

      • Ian – interesting. When was it recovered? When did it disappear / get forgotten?

        It wasn’t forgotten at the church that I attended: for example, evening services on 22nd and 29th March 1987 from the series `What we believe’ (based on the apostles creed)

        The first of these based on Hebrews 9:11-28, the second based on 1 Corinthians 15:35ff

        I thought that this was standard at the time (back in 1987) – so interested to hear when this NT belief died out / got resurrected.

        • Not quite sure when an emphasis on bodily resurrection was lost, but I think Tom Wright (in ‘Surprised by Hope’ [1987] and elsewhere) has helped its recovery. In that book, he has a discussion of Scott Holland’s sermon that comes to conclusions similar to those of Mark Ireland.

        • Indeed, Jock.
          Maybe there are lesssons here for some modern biblical scholars.
          Of some note, to me at least, was during the Queen’s furneral service when the Dean of Westminster was it? described the Queen’s faith as simple!

          BTW David Wilson, well spotted. Thanks for your vigilance.

          Recently Tim Keller has expressed how much comfort and certain assurance he and his wife have through bodiy resurrection of Jesus and believers, as he is going through stage 4 cancer.
          In the past when he has been treated for cancer, he has said that he gained much from Tom Wright’s tome, The Resurrection of The Son of God.

      • I think that is a view owing more to N T Wright than reality – at least reality among ordinary Christians. I would concede, however, that sermons at funerals stressed ‘with the Lord’ and often not the day of resurrection. I can’t comment on the resurrection of the body in biblical studies. It was present in any systematics I read and was evident in books dealing with eschatology. I was not conscious of its absence.

        I think any (possible) reluctance in stressing physical resurrection lay in the belief that a heavenly calling was literally in heaven and so created complexities for physicality (though Jesus is physically in heaven just now). Hoekema’s ‘The Bible and the Future’ put on the table a future in a new heavens and new earth. Tangibility and physicality now made sense, Since then, certainly in reformed circles, a bodily resurrection to a renewed world was (again) stressed.

        Dispensationalists had always stressed physical resurrection.

  6. Thank you, Mark, for funeral insights dating from the death of an earlier monarch. It’s a season very few of us have been through before – a time when death hangs heavily over the entire nation, and thus a chance to comment on the nature of life and death.
    My own insights on the events of the last two weeks concern the nature of a perfect death (not a ‘good death’, as the Greek equivalent is euthanasia, a very different idea), a death that happened without pain or suffering (save some of the creaks and groans of old age) and without all the indignities that the approach to the end of life can bring. Elizabeth did not have to spend weeks in Intensive Care with tubes hanging off her and the world’s press hammering on the doors wanting to know what was going on. Such things the nation, and especially the Royal Family, have been spared.
    I was reminded of the story of Simeon in Luke ch 2 who, having waited all his life to see his Saviour and finding Him in the person of an 8 day old child in the temple sang ‘Lord lettest now thy servant depart in peace, according to thy Word.’ Also of Moses, who still had all his faculties at the age of 120, but died within sight of the land he had led his people to for 40 years. The sense of a mission accomplished, and a life laid down at the end of it, has been very strong – how can we mourn such a life without celebrating it in abundance?
    ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’

  7. I mean, obviously death is not ‘nothing at all’ to bereaved people. It involves loss, and missing a person, and sometimes unfinished tensions or conflicts. So death can have real impact on other people’s lives.

    But as for a person who dies… I think death is less significant than what lies beyond. Death itself, to the person who dies, is merely a gateway. As it was written in 1 Corinthians 15:

    “Listen, I tell you a mystery… we will all be changed… in a flash, in a twinkling of an eye…”

    I believe we are raised corporeal, though still with soul and spirit, but in a deeper dimension… in the beautiful country, the land of the saints, there to live as children of God, in the household of God, in that eternal land and good estate. A country of shining glory and peace so pervading it is tangible, like the lifting of a great burden from a person’s back. And everywhere, wherever you go, the presence of God.

    We are children of eternity, and this is where we dwell. Our time on earth, a brief eye-blink along the fringes of this eternity, significant, profound, but become like a dream. From this perspective, what even *is* death, but the closing door behind us, as we run to greet and be greeted by the Holy One who has loved us from everlasting to everlasting.

    ‘Behold! I am making all things new!’

    • So, Susannah, in which body will you be raised?
      And by what measure do you use to say that it is objectively true? Not only that, but that it is not limited to time and place.?
      And yet other Pauline text are merely human, fallible and mistaken, or just plain wrong? Are not for all time, not for the past, present and future?

    • Susannah

      Your description is enriching. You express the future blessedness of God’s people with poetic insight. I feel I am with a kindred spirit. Once again I feel cognitive dissonance. How can Susannah think in these ways yet happily dismiss parts of the Bible that don’t fit in with her chosen lifestyle? I cannot marry the Susannah of these sentiments with the Susannah who defies Scripture.

          • I try not to. For example, Im gay and would much rather the Bible said same-sex relations were perfectly fine. But Im convinced it doesnt and Im not prepared to say otherwise despite my sexuality.

          • Peter – you’re in good company and I suspect that Dag Hammarskjöld may have had similar trials.

            I read his book ‘Vägmärken’ and, at approximately 1952 he was writing about ‘ensam’ and ‘ensamhet’ (being alone) as something that he seemed to be approaching with a level of pride. I found the Swedish too difficult, so I got hold of the English translation. It was translated by W.H. Auden – and W.H.A. made no secrets of his own orientation. Apparently he was the one who translated the book, because he and Dag Hammarskjöld had been good friends – so I’m putting two and two together and perhaps getting five.

            The story is that early on in his life, D.H. had been enamoured of a woman who basically told him to go and boil his head and after this disappointment he decided not to try again – one of the reasons being that he had made a vow to devote himself wholeheartedly to public service – and he considered things such as marriage to be an inconvenience. I’m not so sure that this version of events hangs together.

            D.H. was killed when his aeroplane was shot down by the CIA, when he was Secretary General to the U.N.. On a divide-and-conquer basis, peace in the Congo was not in the national interests of the U.S. of A. at the time – and they thought that the mission of D.H. might be in danger of succeeding.

            I did think about mentioning `Markings’ (or `Vägmärken’) on the thread about Spirituality, because it is a very spiritual book, written by a very sincere person.

      • Peter

        Your gay inclinations was what I was alluding to. You have, no doubt at great personal cost, put to death your inclinations and spoken against them. The Lord will reward you for this.

  8. I think it’s pretty awful to say ‘death is nothing’. The NT describes it as the final enemy. That’s not nothing. And as someone who has been with their parents dying in their last hours, particularly with my mum who struggled for 12 hours before she finally passed away, I can tell you it’s not nothing. I still relive that years later.

    I find such language irrelevant to reality.

    • PC1 – I more or less agree. Irrelevant to reality.

      Furthermore, from a Christian point of view, death is a blasphemy. It is the ever present reminder of the fall of Adam – and when Adam fell, the whole of nature fell with him. Death is the groaning of creation – ‘ ….. the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.’ (Romans 8:22). It certainly isn’t nothing.

  9. And thou most kind and gentle death
    waiting to hush our latest breath,
    O praise him, alleluia!
    thou leadest home the child of God,
    and Christ our Lord the way hath trod:
    O praise him, ..
    a Victorian hymn but based on a prayer / poem of Francis of Assisi. A verse that we may well leave out as it seems to us at odds with the rest of the hymn.

    European and Scandinavian churches have paintings of the Dance of Death, in which death dances with folk of all status- Google should provide various examples. At the end of life, death is a friend, but in the prime of life, death is a destructive enemy.

    Previous generations have much to teach us about death (and life).

  10. Death is an enemy; yet, for the believer, a conquered enemy that serves rather than rules. Believers belong to the reign of life not death.

    For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Roms 5


Leave a comment