I've been doing a lot of funerals at my church lately. Watching the families cope with death, visiting with parishioners on their death beds, and thinking about what this all means, I came up with the following list. It isn't exhaustive, but it is stuff I wish that all my parishioners considered, at least.
- To celebrate a life-well lived at a funeral is fine; but this celebration must never be at the cost of giving ample opportunity for those who mourn, to do so. After all, spiritually, if death is not “the” enemy, it usually isn’t a friend either. Death often robs us of people we loved. Their absence must be overcome. Their love, even in their dying days, can be life affirming and precious. We will miss it. For such reasons, even in those cases where someone dies after much suffering, so that we say, “we’re glad he or she is at peace,” we ought to remember that this death may well have left a large hole in the lives of loved ones. Mourning is appropriate.
- Another and more difficult reason we sometimes mourn the passing of others is that they hurt us deeply. Some people, when they die, stop being difficult and become difficult memories instead. We may have unfinished business with them. We may even wish that we had been kinder or more understanding or more forgiving. The mourning at funerals is not all about missing the one who has died; it is often more about wondering what to do about our wounds. Talk to a wise friend, or a pastor, or a counselor. Get those difficult emotions to a place where you can talk about them, so that they don’t hijack you.
- Every death of a friend or relative—besides being an occasion to remember with thanksgiving and mourn the absence, ought also be an occasion for us to ponder our own impending deaths and the meaning of our lives. It is never too late to rededicate ourselves to old loves or goals, or to make a mid- or even late-course change. Don’t avoid this sort of self-examination if you want to finally come to your own death satisfied that you ran a good race.
- Probably the most common initial response to death is denial. Denial has many forms. We use euphemisms such as “passing” and “no longer with us.” Denial makes itself known in our stubborn refusal to prepare for death by making wills, taking out life insurance, or writing living wills. Among Christians, it sometimes manifests itself in putting more emphasis on praying for a miracle than on preparing for what must come. For the one dying, denial may take the form of refusing to grapple with the truth about poor health, personal habits, or telling friends that death is on the way. In each and every form, denial robs us of our ability to finish well, to care properly for our loved ones, and to deal with our own hopes and fears. Denial robs you of fully living the life you have left. Denial robs us of the support we could receive from friends, fellow church members, and family. Don’t deny death. Instead, even if you cannot make it a friend, make it an acquaintance.
- If you are willing to make death an acquaintance, then by all means explore the spirituality of death. What happens when we die? Is there eternal life? On what basis? Is there punishment for those who do evil? Are humans both body and soul? There are all sorts of books on these topics that bear witness to thousands of years of human thinking about these issues. We have not reached a consensus, even, as to what the answers are. But one of the mysteries of human thought and wisdom is that nearly all religions offer hope for something more, something glorious even, beyond the grave.
- Forgive others and seek forgiveness. This is hard. All of us live with strained relations and with long running feuds. We have been hurt and hurt others. Hopefully, long before death, you will try to set these things right, asking forgiveness where appropriate and offering it freely as well. Doing so is called love, and it is the Christian way.
- Along the same lines, since we rarely know when we will die, one of the most profoundly beautiful ways you can prepare for the unexpected death is to prepare letters of blessing to be left with your will. These letters will be for your children and spouse—perhaps others. And in the letter you will thank those people for their place in your life, and give them your blessing and best wishes for the future. Especially when death is unexpected, such letters can be a powerful encouragement for those still living.
- The funeral is not just for those who are left alive. It is also a last opportunity for the person who has died to make a statement. You can do so by planning the funeral ahead of time. What scripture would you like read? Who would you like to speak at the funeral? What core message would you like to have the audience hear from the pastor? At a minimum, discuss this with your loved ones and write something up that you can leave with them and a pastor to help set the tone of the funeral.
- Consider a child—an heir—named charity. And it is natural for all people, rich or poor, to want to leave a gift to family and friends when we die. Do not forget, however, the many good causes that you either did, or wish, you had supported when you were alive. When you write your will, consider adding a child called “Charity” to the beneficiaries, and leave her a share. I hardly need to add that one of the charities I sincerely hope that you will consider supporting, even in death, is this church.
- Teach children about death, and what we believe about death. There are many excellent children’s books about death. I have always loved Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, as well as Now One Foot, Now the Other, both by Tomie dePaola.
- Along with teaching children about death, take them to the hospital, pray with them, and take them to the funeral. Late life denial of death is often rooted in early-life silence about death. Death has terrible power to disrupt and hurt our lives, but this power is only magnified if it becomes, for children, a topic whispered about, avoided, and never put into context.
- Prepare an Advance Healthcare Directive, or as it is sometimes known, a “living will.” This is an act of kindness and generosity to the living. Make sure your spouse and/or trustees know about it and that you have discussed your wishes with them. Doing so can save your family from endless disagreement and conflict and can give you a measure of control over even the most difficult part of the road of life—the last mile. Making such a directive is another great antidote for denial, as well.
- If you have elderly parents who were spiritual, and loved church, do not let their age and infirmity get in the way of their participation in church. Talk to the pastor. Insist on ongoing pastoral and spiritual care. Find ways to bring them to church or church to them. Ask for communion, if they desire it; for visits and scripture reading and prayer.
In conclusion, I want to say two closely related, substantive things about dying. First, while I cannot say with certainty what occurred to Jesus after his burial, something so amazing happened that it inspired a bunch of illiterate fishermen and women to found a world religion. Nearly every world religion bears testimony to similar hope. Second, and building on this first thing, you can be sure that the God who is with us and in us and beyond us in this life will not abandon us in death. Death may be an enemy, but Jesus’ example suggests that it is one we can face and in some measure even triumph over. Death does not have the last word--though I'm interested in knowing what you might add to this post.