With the 22 per cent increase in deaths of people living on the streets in the past two years, for many death has become almost routine, at least on the surface. James Hutchinson speaks with LCM missionary Luke Carson about helping people to grieve.
For many of us, a global pandemic has forced us to be more acquainted with death. It has been hard to escape the daily update on the number of victims of COVID-19, delivered (until recently) to the nation each day, and echoed in news headlines.
But it doesn’t make death any less shocking, any less the sense of violation, when we lose someone we love.
Death comes with a sting – one which Jesus has taken on behalf of the dying Christian so that they can face it without fear – but also one which is left for those who mourn.
A sting subdued
Although for many of the homeless men and women who Luke Carson minsters in and around King’s Cross, if there is a sting, it seems to have been subdued, at least on the surface.
‘One of the major issues is strangely trying to take death a little more seriously’, Luke explains during LCM’s monthly live session last month. ‘The people I minister to are very, very familiar with death. They’re used to losing people all the time, normally due to drug or alcohol abuse, or the lifestyle they’re stuck in.’
The average age of death amongst homeless people across England and Wales is 45. A fifth of these deaths happen in London and nearly half of them are caused by drug poisoning.
Often Luke’s job is just trying to get people to take some time to reflect about life and death, rather than just accepting it as a something that happens to people ‘too soon or too young’, before just accepting it and moving on.
Too hectic to mourn
Not having the chance to grieve properly is part of the challenge.
‘Sadly a lot of the funerals which are held in our context are very early in the morning, the cheapest slot at the crematorium’
‘Sadly a lot of the funerals which are held in our context are very early in the morning, the cheapest slot at the crematorium. People in the community just can’t go, it’s too far away to get a taxi or a bus, or they’ll already be drunk by that time’
Luke and his team organise a remembrance service every December, and it gives people the chance to have that experience that they would have had at the funeral which they didn’t go to.
‘One of the reasons we do it at Christmas, is that we can preach the Christmas message, that of Jesus coming to earth, being with us, experiencing human feeling, human emotions’.
‘It’s a messy service. People do come drunk. And that’s okay’
‘It’s a messy service. People do come drunk. And that’s okay. There’s guys on their knees, sobbing, in tears and can’t even hold the candle to light it, or hold the piece of paper with the prayers on it. And that’s okay. It’s messy and we like it that way. We’ve lost a lot of that in the way we do normal church haven’t we? It’s a messy, beautiful and sad service.’
A strange and bitter mercy
It’s at this part of the blog which one might expect us to introduce Alan, addicted to heroin for 15 years but now, living a clean and joyful life. Or Joan, who had resorted to prostitution but now a thriving member of her local church.
But these stories are not at all common. It’s not that simple, explains Luke when I catch up with him later. ‘It’s like one step forward and one step back’ referring to the cycles of improvement and relapse.
But the contemplation of death seems to bring strange and bitter mercy. It’s about ‘seizing the opportunity’ explains Luke, ‘and challenging them a bit and asking ‘what did this person mean to you and why did you miss them?’’ With the sting comes a chance to consider the gravity of life and, we pray, the only hope in death.