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In November a few years ago, I received a phone call from a gentleman named Mark Feary. He said he was the curator of the Silvershot Gallery in Flinders Lane in Melbourne at the back f St Paul’s Cathedral. He said that over the previous three months he had been curating an exhibition centring around the themes of ‘Life’, ‘Death’ and the ‘Thereafter’. In September the theme of the exhibits had been ‘Life’, in October, ‘Death’, and in November, ‘Thereafter’.

The exhibition was closing at the end of November, and Mark’s intention was to compose a retrospective catalogue. He had asked a doctor to write a thousand words on ‘Life’, an undertaker to write a thousand words on ‘Death’, and he was looking for a priest or minister to write something of a similar nature on the ‘Thereafter’. Was I willing to help?

With some misgivings I agreed. I thought, however, that I might find some inspiration if I actually visited the gallery before the exhibition closed. So, one Saturday morning in that same late November, I climbed up three floors to the Silvershot Gallery to view the exhibition. The gallery was dominated by a huge yellow quasi-chandelier. When I asked the attendant, he told me that it was the work of an artist named Blair Trethowan and that it was entitled ‘Change’. He also told me that Blair had recently passed away.

When I came back home, I composed the following. I hope it has some relevance to our hopes, expectations and even our doubts.



Have you ever waited prone and nervous on a trolley outside the operating theatre for a serious, or even a mildly serious, operation? Apart from the exiguous theatre smock, you are stripped, shaven even, virtually naked. You have heard stories of clinical misadventure where, for minor operations, patients have expired on the operating table. Even the hearty assurances of the surgeon, the anaesthetist and the nurses don’t altogether dispel or alleviate your lingering doubts. In a word, you are feeling ‘vulnerable’.

As you lie on the trolley you look upwards. Lights – usually strong lights. You wonder whether this may not be the last visual experience in your life. You have heard, too, that for those who have undergone near-death experiences one of their strongest recollections is of rushing down a long dark tunnel towards a radiant light. Will this be your next visual experience? What of the ‘thereafter’?

The Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead reassures, responding to these doubts and fears:


In Jesus who rose from the dead our hope of resurrection dawned.

The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.

For your faithful people life is changed, not ended.

When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death,

We gain an everlasting dwelling-place in heaven.


‘Changed’, it says, ‘not ended’. I wonder. Eternal life for this life? Immortality for mortality? A resurrected body for this frail carcase? Spirit for matter? Everlasting happiness for the troubles of this world? Think Dante’s Paradiso, in the presence of the Beatific Vision ’The Love that moves the sun and the other stars’? Ah, yes – but there’s also Purgatorio or even Inferno!

Or reincarnation perhaps? Will I come back as a better, more successful person? Or as a cat? Or as a cockroach? The endless cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth – the phoenix rising from the ashes.  Is this the ‘thereafter’?

Or is this really the END? Not ‘changed’ but ‘ended’? Definitively. Is the light towards which I rush at the end of the tunnel merely an illusion, merely the after-image of those lights that shone down from above the trolley? Nothing else but blackness? Not even blackness – nothing at all – the end of consciousness?

‘Changed’ or ‘ended’? Aye, there’s the rub. Nothing more than a memory, perhaps ‘immortalised’ (!) in prose, poetry or even on headstones? Or a change, a genuine change, like entering this life. Passing from one state of consciousness to another. Was this what Blair Trethowan meant by his work: ‘Change’? Passing from one state of consciousness to another different state of consciousness? Or was it passing from consciousness out of consciousness altogether?  What was he thinking, expecting, when he was approaching death?

The ‘Thereafter’. Not merely wonder but fear also: ‘Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’. Inevitably, Shakespeare’s Hamlet:


For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

Must give us pause.  There’s the respect

That makes a calamity of so long life …

But that the dread of something after death

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of.


Wonder? Fear? Perhaps even courage in the face of the ‘thereafter’. Not denying fear, but facing up to, accepting, even embracing, death. And death shall have no dominion. Soldiers in the trenches in the Somme in the First World War with death and the ‘thereafter’ their daily companions. A whole clutch of young war poets, both secular and Christian, many of whom perished subsequently in the conflict, celebrated this courage in the face of death and mused on the nature of the ‘thereafter’. Would such spirit pass into nothingness? Was the rhetoric of the generals, the politicians and the poets, the inscribed monuments reared in towns and villages in their memory – were all these the only ‘thereafter’, or were they merely the husks from which new life had already emerged?

So, finally, is there hope? For Christians? Even for agnostics?  Everything else lives for but a brief moment and then perishes. Even the Christian Ash Wednesday, as the priest anoints the penitent with ashes: Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return. Why would one hope? Because, so you believe, human beings are radically different? Not like the plants, not even like the animals. That spark, that spirit, consciousness, the mind, love, sacrifice, understanding, the soul, shall all these pass into oblivion? So, in the end, is there hope? Only a forlorn hope? Or an optimistic hope? A reassuring hope? A resolute hope? A justifiable hope? Or just hope?

For Christians at least, there are precedents in which to place our hope:


In Jesus who rose from the dead our hope of resurrection dawned.

The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.

For your faithful people life is changed, not ended.

When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death

We gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.




Bill Uren, SJ, AO, is a Scholar-in-residence at Newman College at the University of Melbourne. A former Provincial Superior of the Australian and New Zealand Jesuits, he has lectured in moral philosophy and bioethics in universities in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth and has served on the Australian Health Ethics Committee and many clinical and human research ethics committees in universities, hospitals and research centres.

Main image: Hamlet pondering Yorick's skull, Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949) (Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Bill Uren, Life, Thereafter, Death, Afterlife



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Existing comments

Fr Bill, a most daunting task set for you to explore the ‘afterlife’ and thanks for your words. I remember reading a piece of writing by Rowan Williams some years ago where he affirmed that he believed God’s care continued after our physical death. Poetry certainly helps also. From Gary Catalano “Heaven of Rags”: I should imagine/that the true heaven/is a heaven of rags:/all things aged/beaten and torn/will be there, stained/with sweat and dirt/and basking in the glory/that only comes/of use

And also from Gary about that other place: “A Dream of Hell” - Fire? Or endless mud? No, I see neither of these? I see a landscape of torn and broken books.

Pam | 13 April 2023  

As Bill concludes, there are precedents for hope in transformed, everlasting life beyond the grave: the resurrection of Christ and the testimony to it of his followers ever since who accept in faith Christ's promises of the event as assurance of its attainability for themselves and others, and seek to share the hope it inspires in proclamation by word and action.

John RD | 16 April 2023  

There is much talked and written about what might happen after you die. I think the Judeo-Christian-Muslim perspective says it all extremely aptly. Not surprising really, as this is revealed religion, not empty speculation. I found the burial service based on the Book of Common Prayer, which was used for my father and a very dear friend, immensely reassuring. Years ago, I read something about the faith of a simple French peasant who sat in a church for an hour a day just being in the presence of Almighty God. Some of the artwork in those old Romanesque churches in France puts you in the mood. Life and death then seem part of a continuum. In the modern world we have lost that sense of numinosity and immanence and many seem incapable of recovering it. Perhaps because their 'god' is materialism. No wonder they are absolutely terrified of dying. What explanation could anyone give them?

Edward Fido | 19 April 2023  

Bill's task emerges from the request of an arts curator who may be unfamiliar with the complexity of Scripture. The Creation Story has two narratives, the lesser-known of which is not about salvation and atonement contingent upon belief in original sin, which owes its origins to Augustine and, later, Aquinas and contrary to the Franciscan account, favoured by Pope Francis (like Bill, a Jesuit) in the entelechy underpinning 'Laudato si', Pope Francis's seminal encyclical.

Some of the comments elicited by Bill's essay on the afterlife accordingly reek of a theology that has turned millions of people off the practice of our faith and which appears to suit those either oblivious of the two narratives or who are committed to advancing an account of The Fall that is responsible for considerable damage to Christian living, especially in the 'this world' context and in regard to which Bill demonstrates that he is only too aware of its limitations.

While Bill's eloquence, as always, pays a great compliment to him, one has to raise a question about task limitations that obviously constrained this revered ethicist and moral philosopher, forcing him to focus on a 'this world/other world' binary that precludes richer discussion.

Michael Furtado | 19 April 2023  
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The Church's scriptures and tradition contain and address realities of sin and grace, destructiveness and creativity, death and life, evident and existentially experienced as contending - a fact, by the grace of God, that has historically drawn and today continues to sustain millions the world over.

John RD | 25 April 2023  

Was it Marx who called it 'the opium of the people' ? The fact that a product is widely used is no indicator of its value or beneficial value. I suspect millions more are enthusiastic users of social media.

Ginger Meggs | 26 April 2023  

May I assume from your citing of Marx that you share his opinion of the Christian faith, Ginger? As I've indicated in numerous Eureka Street postings, I do not subscribe to his materialist vision and estimation of life.

John RD | 27 April 2023  

Ginger's remark invites a discussion of Marx in his proper sociological context! Marx's criticism of religion is widely upheld in faith circles as the foundation-stone of existential praxis. Religion, as distinct from the sacred, occupies a deeply political and ideologised space especially in the fundamentalist sphere as is evident in much ES discussion. In that sense, like the abuse of sex or misappropriation of art, it is widely agreed to be an alienated product of superstitious minds. In that alienated context its own self-interpretation is characteristically divorced from any immediate awareness of the conditions of its emergence and maintenance: one that, like the extremities of Nietzsche and Bataille, hides its own blind roots. Blind faith, like bad poetry, cannot be anything but a mask that shrouds the concrete truth of human existence. Marx's criticisms of religion cannot therefore be dismissed in literate Catholic circles as mere ideology. From this perspective we glimpse the distinction in Marx between religion and the sacred.

Marx's criticisms of religion are a respectable critique of idealistic abstraction from the perspective of lived existence (or praxis). All praxis theology is underscored by Marx's choice of word to describe blind alleyways commonly agreed upon within educated faith circles, viz. fetishism, which 'commodifies' God! Thus, Communism was the undeniable means for which that realisation emerged.

Marx was the first political theorist to take sides with the weak and oppressed. Miranda (1981/2) contends that the praxis of earthly justice and love is sacredness itself, envisioned as a God of liberation, justice, and love. This is evident in Jesus' witnessing to a life of confrontation and advocacy for a better world.

Many philosophic greats concur: Kant writes in 'Religion' (1793) that the actions and life of a person clearly indicate their disposition. Contesting this suggests 'blind faith', which proposes superstition.

Michael Furtado | 29 April 2023  

The Catholic Church's faith is neither "blind" nor "an idealistic abstraction", based as it is on the incarnation of Jesus Christ, whose life and teachings are accessible to us through the medium of the Scriptures and the magisterium of the Apostolic tradition, sources that in any serious discussion cannot be dismissed as "an alienated product of a superstitious mind" since together they constitute the arbiter of the truth or falsity of any theory or practice claiming recognition as Christian.
It might be added that truncated idea of Jesus as a humanistic reformer and "advocate for a better world" does no justice to his person or his mission in initiating "the reign of God", which, since his entry into history has both an immanent and transcendent dimension.
The Marxist conception of humanity, confining as it does human existence and possibility to this world and its history only, is a radical point of departure from "the reign of God" as revealed by Christ and upheld by the Church.
Further, it is unqualified faith in sociology to which the accusation "fundamentalist" would be more fittingly directed.

John RD | 30 April 2023  

No, you can't John RD. One doesn't need to be a Marxist to appreciate the light that he shed on the human condition, any more than one needs to be a Christian to see some of the insights that it offers.

Marx was not the only great thinker of the nineteenth century to consider the question of effects and usefulness of religion. John Stuart Mill, in his essay on 'The Usefulness of Religion', highlighted some of the hazards associated with religion, for example the way in which the attribution of supernatural origins to a system of morality protects it from being discussed and criticised, let alone changed, in the light of further insight or evidence.

One has only to see the conservative - nay reactionary - nature of many of the comments on this website for evidence of its dumbing effect.

Ginger Meggs | 01 May 2023  

What I found interesting was that Bill was called to the Silvershot Gallery, which is literally behind St Paul's Cathedral and up a stair or three. I do not think it is linked to the cathedral. Also interesting that the author on the subject of 'Death' was an undertaker. In this modern age undertakers, rather than clergy, seem to be the first person the family contacts at a bereavement. Our medieval ancestors would have seen depictions of Life, Death and the Hereafter in their gorgeously decorated churches and cathedrals. Likewise, the medieval miracle plays would have reiterated this Christian cosmology. Why is it that today people often only see religious art in secular galleries and need detailed explanations of what it is?

Edward Fido | 20 April 2023  
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A pertinent question, Edward.
In response: a combination of distraction and cultural amnesia facilitated by the myopia of an exclusively secular world-view and its relentless media bombardment?
And/or, perhaps we need better Christian artists, especially ones whose works are not so abstract as to enervate them of any historical traction or void them of recognizable Scriptural influence?

John RD | 01 May 2023  

The Church accepts the organic development of doctrine in all fields of theology and human learning, but not the incorporation of proposals and practices - often presented now as "new paradigms" - that are incompatible with Scripture and the Apostolic tradition which have their source in God's revelation, not simply human wisdom and invention.
The acceptance of divinely originate, authoritative, and accessible truth about faith and morality differentiates the Church from her many opponents, and today guarantees her no more historical protection than it did her earliest followers and her unique Founder .

John RD | 02 May 2023  
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How do you know, John, what is 'divine revelation' and what is the outcome of 'human wisdom and invention' ? Or more to the point, how do you persuade others who may be more sceptical than you ?

Ginger Meggs | 05 May 2023  

Though faith is ultimately a gift - and, as Catholics affirm in the Eucharist, a mystery - many sceptics have been and still are led to desire baptism and membership of the believing community by reading the Scriptures, familiarizing themselves with the teachings of the Church as promulgated by the pope and bishops in communion with him, and also by the edification of believers' actions that manifest the love of Christ in the service of others.

John RD | 06 May 2023  

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