One of the saddest news stories of the last week must surely be the one about the 14 year old girl who knew she was dying of a rare form of cancer - with no hope of any cure. She wanted to live, and she wanted to live so much that she asked if her body could be cryogenically frozen in the hope that some time in the future - perhaps hundreds of years in the future - a cure for her condition might be found and somehow the doctors might restore her to life. She isn’t the first to have made that request. But because of her age she was too young to make a will and too young to determine what should be done with her body when she died. So she asked her mother, who agreed. Her grandparents came up with the £37,000 it would cost to dehydrate her cells so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by ice crystals and to drain her body of blood which would be replaced by a sort of anti-freeze, to pack her in dry ice and send her to a storage facility in America where her remains would be stored in a canister of liquid nitrogen. But her father objected - which is why her request became a news story. It required a High Court judge to determine what should happen - and he ruled that the girl’s mother should have the right to decide. So the mother set in motion the process for freezing and storing the girl’s body. The girl died within 10 days of the court ruling. The girl and her mother spent her last hours together - the girl apparently was comforted by having her request granted, though reports are that the mother was distracted by knowing just what would have to be done immediately following her daughter’s death.
The story of a young person’s death is tragic in itself. This story is so much more tragic again. So much more life that could have been lived - the girl, her family and the judge knew that; we know that. The desperate clinging to life - that is human in itself. But the still further element of tragedy is that the whole process of letting go in the face of death is denied - this cannot be a good death - in a sense because death is denied: the hospital could not do its work properly; the father was denied access to his daughter; the mother herself seems not to have been able to be attentive in a time when every moment of the present is so precious; the girl herself clung to a hope - but we are left asking if she was sold only an empty hope. And no one seemed prepared to explore the aftermath. How can loved ones grieve for someone who has died but then been left in a state where there’s that most remote possibility of some sort of resuscitation? No grave to visit or place to lay flowers, but the knowledge of a large aluminium canister in which bodies are hung upside down for centuries or until the money runs out or there’s a power failure or leakage in the coolant system. And to what state could life be restored? Would anyone have the will to bring the girl back to life even if it should be possible? What sort of life after the damage of disease and the complications of the preserving process? And with whom would that life be shared? Our living is made worthwhile because of the context and relationships in which we live. Who would be this girl’s loved ones for her?
It’s a sad story for our secular age, where God doesn’t get a look in. Actually I think there are plenty of ethical issues even for the most hardened secularists - at least if they approach them from a properly humanist perspective. What is it truly to be human? That’s the question we need always to ask. It doesn’t seem to have entered the equation in this tragic case. And there’s no sense at all that to be human is to be made in the image of God. We are made in God’s image, even with all the flaws we possess of human character, frailty and disease. We are God’s creation, not lightly to be handled, even if we might be aware most acutely of its imperfections as we perceive them. And because we are made in God’s image, we have a hope - even in the face of death - of redemption. Our bodies and our minds, even our abilities and our relationships, are less than perfect - but we are loved. That’s the affirmation we can hold to as Christians, even in the darkest of circumstances, even when we can’t make that affirmation ourselves. If only there could have been someone there for that family to affirm it for them as that poor girl faced death. If only they could commend her to God’s care and protection - to know that he holds her in his heart; to say in the words of that simplest of prayers, May she rest in peace.
That needs to be our prayer for them now. I’ve thought about their plight as I’ve pondered today’s readings for the Eucharist. The plea of one of the thieves crucified with Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus’ response from his own cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Is this a real promise? There’s no theological underpinning: Christians and others continue to argue over the nature of life after death. There’s the other thief who simply mocks from his own cross - hard words denying hope in the imminence of death from one who is paying the penalty for his own failures in life. But that is not to say that he himself is without hope. Jesus promises hope to the one we call “the repentant thief” / “the penitent thief.” But he doesn’t himself speak words of condemnation against the thief who derides him. And Jesus’ words of hope in Paradise are not an anodyne response. We look at Jesus on the Cross and see one who will himself cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Forsakenness is a natural emotion in the face of death. And it’s one that Jesus himself feels. He shares it as he dies on a Cross under the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.” This is our King, Christ the King. But a King with a difference. Without special protection, without bodyguards. Whose throne in this world turns out to be a Cross - but who can because of that all the better reach out to us from it. Vulnerable - as any of us. God’s Son - and affirming our call to be his children. Let’s remember that for all who face their own Calvary - and for ourselves.
(Readings at the Eucharist: Jeremiah 23.1-6; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43)