In Search of A Good Death

THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 9:1-20

Psalm 30

Revelation 5:11-14

John 21:1-19

Prayer of the Day: Eternal and all-merciful God, with all the angels and all the saints we laud your majesty and might. By the resurrection of your Son, show yourself to us and inspire us to follow Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” John 21:18-19.

As dark as these words appear, they are good words for Saint Peter. Peter famously vowed to go with Jesus to prison and to death-only to deny him when he was presented with the opportunity to do just that. But Jesus will not deny Peter. Jesus assures Peter that our God of the second chance will give him another opportunity to put his life on the line for Jesus. He will have another chance to glorify God and God’s reign of peace though imprisonment and death.

Aside from their obvious context, these words of Jesus strike a nerve with me. Perhaps it is because over my forty years of ministry I have seen so many people grow old, lose their health, their stamina and their cognitive abilities. I have seen so many once strong, independent men and women rendered helpless in old age, needing others to make important decisions for them with which they are not always happy. Or maybe these words strike me with increased urgency because I am entering into the autumn years of my own life. Whatever the reason, these words of Jesus to my namesake speak to me in a personal way and bring home what I have always known on an intellectual level but struggle with existentially, namely, that the day will come when “someone else will…take you where you do not wish to go.” Unless I die suddenly as a result of accident or some traumatic medical event, such as heart attack or stroke, I will experience physical and mental decline in the coming years. At some point, my wife and I will be unable to live independently in this home we built together. At some point, we will become dependent on others for transportation, housekeeping, meal preparation, dressing and personal hygene. This is not where I want to go. But it is clearly where I am headed.

Nobody likes to contemplate the end of one’s own life. Perhaps that is why we never speak of the end as such. We speak in glowing terms of retirement and the “golden years.” “Independent living” communities, an Orwellian term describing living arrangements for persons who have lost or are losing their capacity to live independently, have increased geometrically over the last two decades. Advertisements abound for medications that are supposed to improve memory, exercise routines that stave off the effects of aging and lotions designed to erase years from our faces. We tell each other stories about one hundred year old men and women who are still climbing mountains, as though this were achievable for anyone with enough discipline, determination and the right dietary/exercise regimen. But that is not way most of us will end our lives.

It was not always so. During medieval times, death was at the very center of life. According to church teaching, the whole purpose of life was to prepare for death. Participation in worship and the sacraments was understood as a process of formation, readying one for a “good death.” Time was measured in saint’s days marking the death of biblical and post biblical heroes of faith. The landscape was dominated by parish churches and towering cathedrals which were the sites of local graveyards. The faithful were challenged to so live that in death their hope and confidence in the resurrection and eternal life might glorify God. Death was surrounded by familiar communal rituals and symbols of comfort and hope. It was sad, to be sure, but not terrifying and hopeless.  

Over the last few centuries, however, the cultural influence of religion in defining the meaning of life and death has receded. Discussion of all the reasons for this is beyond the scope of any single article. Suffice to say, there no longer exists a strong cultural consensus about what constitutes a “good life” or what “meaning,” if any, life has. Yet despite the demise of faith, death remains. In the absence of the myths and religions that once made sense of death, nothing is left but, to use Dillon Thomas’ words, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”[1] That is, by and large, what medical science has done. Improvements in medicine, the availability of health care to more people and a deeper understanding of how the human body works and how it can be maintained have decreased infant mortality worldwide and pushed the average life span to historic lengths.[2] No one has to convince me that modern medicine is a blessing. I have medical science to thank for the fact that members of my immediate family are living normal active lives rather than residing in the cemetery. But for all that medicine can do for us, it cannot change the stubborn fact of human mortality.

In his book, Being Mortal,[3] Dr. Atul Gawande explores the role medicine plays in our experience of dying and finds it wanting. The goal of medicine, Gawande points out, is healing. Medical doctors are trained to “fix” their patients. To its credit, modern medicine has extended the average life span by decades, eradicated diseases that formerly killed millions and enabled persons with medical conditions that would have killed them in childhood a century ago to live normal lives. But there is no cure for mortality. A discipline designed to heal, repair and extend life is ill-equipped to assist people who can no longer be “fixed.” Too often, medical treatment has served to prolong suffering, foster false hope and create unrealistic expectations while providing no meaningful relief. Gawande writes in his Epilogue:

“Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was the central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be.

……………………………………………………………………………………..

“If to be human is to be limited, then the role of caring professions and institutions-from surgeons to nursing homes-ought to be aiding people in their struggle with those limits. Sometimes we can offer a cure, sometimes only a salve, sometimes not even that. But whatever we can offer, our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the greater aims of a person’s life. When we forget that, the suffering we inflict can be barbaric.” p. 259-260.

That, of course, brings us to the question of what “the greater aim” of our life is. As far as disciples of Jesus are concerned, John’s gospel is clear on that point. “[T]his is eternal life, that they may know….the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [God has] sent.” John 17:3. This “knowing” is more than just theoretical understanding. It is relational. To know God is to be drawn into the love that binds the Trinity as One, love that is the very essence of God. John 17:20-24. And because God is love, love alone is eternal, as Saint Paul reminds us. I Corinthians 13:13. Eternal life, then, is not so merely by virtue of its duration, but because of its quality. A life grounded in love participates in what is eternal, what is real and what outlasts our mortal existence. Such a life, as well as the death in which it ends, glorifies God.

So the question I ask myself is this: How can I ensure that I will die well? I cannot do that anymore than I can ensure that I will live well this day. What I can do is give myself to the ancient practices of discipleship: worship, prayer, witness and generosity. I can pray that God will grant me grace to exist in love; to care for, serve and advocate for my neighbors near and far; to live gently on the land loving its creatures, reverencing its network of living and non-living communities; to live joyfully, thankfully, generously and obediently within my creaturely limits, trusting God to manage what is beyond those limits. I can pray along with the Psalmist that God will grant me a “heart of wisdom” that I might “order my days” and that the work of my hands might be established. Psalm 90. I can pray that something of my life might be graciously woven into the fabric of God’s new creation and so glorify God. I pray that when I draw my last breath, I will know the company of the Good Shepherd, the peace that passes all understanding, the love of family and friends and the prayers of the church as I pass through the valley of shadow into the light of God’s nearer presence.

Here is a poem by George Herbert that speaks both the harsh reality of death and the confident faith with which it can be met.

Death

Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,

                           Nothing but bones,

      The sad effect of sadder groans:

Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.

For we considered thee as at some six

                           Or ten years hence,

      After the loss of life and sense,

Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.

We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;

                         Where we did find

      The shells of fledge souls left behind,

Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Savior’s death did put some blood

                           Into thy face,

      Thou art grown fair and full of grace,

Much in request, much sought for as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,

                           As at Doomsday;

      When souls shall wear their new array,

And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust

                           Half that we have

      Unto an honest faithful grave;

Making our pillows either down, or dust.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. George Herbert (1593 –1633) was a Welsh-born poet, orator, and priest of the Church of England. He was born into a wealthy family and raised in England. He was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge where he went with the intention of becoming a priest. Instead, he became the University’s Public Orator. His skill attracted the attention of King James I through whose patronage he entered the Parliament of England. There he served for about a year. Following the death of King James I, Herbert gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England. He spent the rest of his life as the rector of a small parish in Salisbury. You can read more about George Herbert and sample more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, by Dylan Thomas.

[2] Though, of course, the distribution of these benefits among the world’s people have been grossly unequal and inequitable!

[3] Gawande, Atul, Being Mortal (c. 2014 by Atul Gawande; pub. by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company LLC).

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