DEATH comes to us all.
Despite the fact that death comes to us all, we usually shrink back from pondering it. We imagine that by ignoring it, death will simply go away—or at least go somewhere else. Yet we all experience little deaths through the normal processes of aging, or the unexpected events of illness or accident. And we know that people of all ages die every day.
During Lent this year, Manchester Cathedral will be hosting a major ceramics exhibition by the world-famous British artist Julian Stair. Quietus Revisited: The vessel, death and the human body is his meditation in fired clay on human mortality. By making huge clay jars, adult- and child-sized, sarcophagi and a variety of cinerary vessels, he invites us to face the hardest human questions of all: Why do we have bodies that hurt and die? How are we to think of our own deaths? What will happen to my dead body? And, what will happen to the ‘me’ that now is a living body?
Quietus Revisited is Julian Stair’s honest and courageous attempt to face such questions of death and loss. By crafting life-sized ceramic vessels of the kinds that could be used to hold dead bodies, or the ashes of those who have died, he has sought to confront and contain the reality of death. His beautiful funerary vessels convey his deep reverence for the human bodies that they are designed to hold. Yet the fact that they are made out of clay is a firm reminder that we are part of the earth and our bodies eventually return to it.
Paradoxically, when we face the questions of suffering and death, we are also enabled to face the deeper questions of life: What does it mean to be alive and to know it? Why do we have the privilege of enjoying the beauty of the earth, but only for a season? Is all the richness of life itself here only for a time, fated to eventually disappear forever? Will the earth itself die one day, and float, inert and silent, in dark space forever?
Christian faith responds to these questions of death and life with honesty and hope. Indeed, Lent is the season when Christians explore these questions most deeply. We wonder at a faith that affirms that God, the maker of all, not only became a human being, but also experienced suffering and death. And, further, that this divine-human God, returned from death with the promise of eternal life for all.
Canon Dr David Holgate is Canon theologian with responsibility for the arts at Manchester Cathedral