Fair dos for Henry Scott Holland

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Henry Scott Holland


Posted by our religious correspondent Richard Rawlinson


In this initial blog, Fr Tim Finnigan explains his irritation with this famous reflection on death by the Anglican Canon Henry Scott-Holland (1847-1918):

 “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 at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”

 Fr Tim retorts: “Death is not ‘nothing’, it is a big thing and can be devastating. Something has happened and it can seem that everything has changed…. Yes, we should keep our happy memories and cherish them but we do not need to “force” solemnity and sorrow – they come quite naturally”.

 He adds: “As Catholics we have the best possible comfort in our grief. At every Mass we pray for all the faithful departed. At Mass… the whole Church is gathered together, including all of the Holy Souls in purgatory. We are not helpless because our prayers actually help our loved ones who have died… The popular transformation of the funeral into “a celebration of the life of …” distracts people from the opportunity to do the one thing that really helps those who have died: to pray for them”.

 All good stuff, in my book, but Fr Tim follows his first blog with this clarification after correspondents pointed out he has been unfair to Canon Scott-Holland.

 The fact is that, while at St Paul’s Cathedral, Scott-Holland delivered a sermon in May 1910 following the death of King Edward VII titled Death the King of Terrors, in which he explores the natural but seemingly contradictory responses to death: the fear of the unexplained and the belief in continuity. It is from his discussion of the latter that his best-known writing, ‘Death is nothing at all’, is drawn.

Fr Tim concludes: “The poor man has been badly served by having the “Death is nothing at all …” section quoted so widely without the context of his argument and contrast”.

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Jon Underwood
12 years ago

Thank you Richard. Thought provoking as ever.

Canon Scott-Holland’s reflection that ‘Death is nothing at all …’ does seem unrealistic and perhaps overly prescriptive. However I think it is helpful because it challenges our widely held views in society about what death is. Of course for most people death is not nothing and can be devastating but does it have to be? No, of course not. I am sure you can think of examples where the description of devastating is not appropriate.

For me, Canon Scott-Holland points to something important – death is what be believe it to be.

Richard Rawlinson
Richard Rawlinson
12 years ago

Thank you Jon. Good point made too. I’d like to read Scott-Holland’s full sermon one day.

12 years ago

I understood (perhaps incorrectly) that the script from Henry Scott Holland was actually a letter to his wife, to be opened following his death. If taken in this more personal a context, it makes, to my mind, an extremely touching, parting message…. I requested that the minister read those words out at my mother’s parting service. He did, but with the accompanying words that he didn’t agree that death was, indeed, nothing at all. If we accept that ..”as a flower of the field, the wind passes over it, and this place knows it no more”… then surely Holland’s missive… Read more »