Edith Cavell – confident in the face of death
100 years ago an English nurse was given a state funeral honouring her life of sacrifice
The firing squad takes aim. In front of them, loosely tied to a post on the slope of a grassy field a woman stands dressed in her nurse’s uniform. Shots ring out through the mist of the autumn morning. Edith Cavell’s body jerks forward. The nurse who had helped to save the lives of more than 200 Allied troops is dead.
Edith Cavell had been betrayed by those close to her – a circus runaway who had been given a home and a job by Edith, and an informer who had come to Edith’s hospital for treatment claiming to be an injured French officer.
She had confessed to the crime of ‘conducting soldiers to the enemy’ – helping soldiers escape who could potentially return to the battlefield. Guilty, she was sentenced to death in a German military court in occupied Belgium. Pleas for mercy from the British, Americans and her fellow nurses fell on deaf ears. She went to her death calmly, confident that death is not the end.
But Edith’s last words were not of revenge or recrimination. On the night before she was executed, she met with her local priest Revd H. Stirling Gahan. He recalled, ‘The final sentence had been given early that afternoon. To my astonishment and relief I found my friend perfectly calm and resigned.’
She told Revd Gahan ‘I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.’
As a nurse she had often been with patients as they died. She knew the practicalities of dying, and to preserve her modesty at her execution, she had even pinned her skirts around her ankles.
‘I must have no bitterness towards anyone’
She was also spiritually prepared for death. Her final ten weeks had been spent in solitary confinement, reading her favourite book The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. She told Revd Gahan: ‘I thank God for this ten weeks’ quiet before the end…Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty…This time of rest has been a great mercy….’
She then said words that have become her memorial around the world: ‘But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’
Edith knew that people who had been close to her had played a part in her betrayal. As a Christian, she had prayed daily from childhood, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us’ and in saying the creed as part of Morning Prayer every day, she had affirmed her belief in ‘the forgiveness of sins; The resurrection of the body, And the life everlasting’.
She knew patriotism was not enough for these final hours. She knew that to enter into God’s presence she needed to be forgiven for her own shortcomings. And just as Jesus’ death had bought her forgiveness, she needed to forgive any and all who had wronged her.
Rev Gahan sat with Edith on her bed and they used the only chair in the cell as a table for Holy Communion. As they prepared to share bread and wine together, they said the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his disciples; talking to God as ‘Father’; longing for his kingdom to come; asking for daily provision and forgiveness ‘as we forgive them that trespass against us’. Together they said the creed remembering that Jesus ‘was made man, And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father.’
The final words of the creed had special relevance for Edith that evening: ‘I look for the Resurrection of the dead, And the life of the world to come.’
For Rev Gahan, the words he spoke as he gave Edith bread and wine, also had a special poignancy: ‘The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life…’
As the communion service ended, Rev Gahan began to say the words of the hymn ‘Abide with me’ and Edith joined him repeating
‘…When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me…’
Edith give Rev Gahan the letters she had written to friends and family and when they came to say ‘Goodbye’ she smiled at him and said, ‘We shall meet again.’
She was confident that death was not the end and they would meet again in God’s presence.