Five Insights About Death and Dying from Dorothy L. Sayers

Beginning her working life writing ad copy, which included the Guinness account, Dorothy L. Sayers came to fame in the 1920s and 1930s as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery stories. She then became one of the major religious writers of her day. She wrote substantial theological works like The Mind of the Maker, several plays, most famously The Man Who Was King, many essays, and finally most of a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. A friend of G. K. Chesterton’s and C. S. Lewis’s, she was like Lewis an Anglican who does not seem ever to have felt drawn to the Catholic Church. She died in 1957.

Sayers wrote surprisingly little about death as a personal experience. She cared more about its cultural meaning and the world-transforming meaning of Jesus’s Resurrection. She told a minister who’d asked her to speak on preparing for death that she didn’t know if she would choose the subject herself. “I have a strong objection to dying — possibly you may feel that this is an excellent reason I should talk about it, but I can’t honestly pretend that I am of the stuff of which martyrs are made.”

 

Death is less noticeable when it occurs privately and piecemeal. In time of peace we can pretend, almost successfully, that it is only a regrettable accident, which ought to be avoided. If a wealthy old gentleman of ninety-two suddenly falls dead of heart failure, the papers headline the event: “Tragic Death of Millionaires”; and we feel quite astonished and indignant that anybody so rich should be cut off in his prime. With all that money available for research, science should have been able to solve the problem of death for him. . . .

We said last time [World War I] that we hated war because it killed the young and strong  before their time. But we are just as angry this time to see the old and the infirm perish with the rest. No man can die more than once; but great disasters, great pestilences, and above all great wars cram our eyes and ears with the detested knowledge that life intends to kill us.

— “Problem Picture”

There is no solution to death. . . . [O]f late we note a growing resentment and exasperation in the face of death. We do not so much fear the pains of dying, as feel affronted by the notion than anything in this world should be inevitable. Our efforts are not directed, like those of the saint or the poet, to make something creative out of the idea of death, but rather to seeing whether we cannot somehow evade, abolish, and, in fact, solve the problem of death. . . .

The problem of death is not susceptible of detective-story solution. The only two things we can do with death are, first, to postpone it, which is only a partial solution, and, secondly to transfer the whole set of values connected with death to another sphere of action — that is, from time to eternity.

If we are afraid of a thing, there are two kinds of assurance that may be given us. One, that the thing feared will not happen; two, that if it does happen, it is not to be feared. Christianity makes no promise whatever of the first, but only of the second. It is not, for instance, suggested that a Christian will not die; but only that death cannot harm him.

— “Problem Picture” and a letter of 26 September 1939

“And the third day he rose again.” What are we to make of this? One thing is certain: if he were God and nothing else, his immortality means nothing to us; if he was man and no more, his death is no more important than yours or mine. But if really was both God and man, then when the man Jesus died, God died too; and when the God Jesus rose from the dead, man rose too, because they were one and the same person. . . .

[T]hose who saw the risen Christ remained persuaded that life was worth living and death a triviality — an attitude curiously unlike that of the modern defeatist, who is firmly persuaded that life is a disaster and death (rather inconsistently) a major catastrophe.

— “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged”

That is the outline of the official story — the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. . . . That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God and find him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed. . . .

Perhaps the drama is played out now, and Jesus is safely dead and buried. Perhaps. It is ironical and entertaining to consider that at least once in the world’s history those words might have been spoken with complete conviction, and that was upon the eve of the Resurrection.

— “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged”

God, if this day my journey end,
I thank You first for many a friend,
The sturdy and unquestioned piers
That run beneath my bridge of years. . . .
For eyes to see and ears to hear,
For tongue to speak and thews to bear,
For hands to handle, feet to go,
For life, I give You thanks also.
For all things merry, quaint and strange,
For sound and silence, strength, and change,
At last, for death, which only gives
Value to everything that lives;
For these, good God, who still makes me,
I praise Your name; since, verily,
I of my joy have had no dearth,
Though this day were my last on earth.

— “Hymn in Contemplation of Sudden Death”

 

 

The whole “Hymn in Contemplation of Sudden Death” can be found here

 

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