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Dying Well

June 14th, 2005 by Jason · 3 Comments

What do I think is a good death? How would I like to die? What would make for a bad death? These are all questions which have been on my mind since 9/11. A bit morbid, I suppose, but I think they are questions worth asking, especially in a culture which often talks about death in the extremes: denial or glamorization. There is little talk, even in the church, about what it means to die well, especially considering that 90% of us will die a prolonged death (which leaves more room for dying well than a sudden death).

What does our culture consider a good death?

Death and the process of dying were once a common reality in the lives of all but the most elite in society. However, with the creation of advanced medical technology over the last century death became medicalized and largely removed from the everyday-life in the West. The silence and denial this caused in our society led many to believe that in relegating death to the medical world, something vital and human was being lost in death. A revival of interest in death and dying began to occur in the 1970s in what has been termed the “death awareness movement.” It has fueled thousands of books, seminars, how-to guides, and discussion groups by religious and secular people alike (Bregman, 1). This brief history on the death awareness movement is important for it has played a large part in defining what constitutes a good death, both for the Church and larger society.

One dominant image in our society of what makes a good death is that death is to be accepted as a natural part of life. This is contrasted with those who insist that death should not happen and that it is an illusion to think life is death-free. Death is natural in the same sense that birth is natural. As Qohelet, the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “there is a time be born and a time to die” (Ecc. 3:2). To bitterly resist this fact of life can only lead to a bad death (Bregman, 47).

Often when we speak of death being “natural” we mean that it is fitting, or that it happens according to our expectations of how life should be. To this end, death at a ripe old age is a good death, while dying as a child, before our children grow up, or before our parents die is “not the way it is supposed to be.”

A good death in our culture is also one in which the dying person does not lose control over their fate. This is one of the concerns that has spawned such interest in hot issues like physician assisted suicide and Terri Schiavo’s death. A bad death is one in which others are burdened with making decisions for us, or, even worse, they make decisions about our death that we ourselves would not have chosen. In a good death, then, one’s autonomy and last wishes are honored (Bregman, 80).

Another common feature of a good death is that it is not in isolation from those we love. One of the results of medical technology is that often the dying become “stuck” on medical devices such as a respirator or feeding tube which may mean their last days are not spent in their home surrounded by friends and family, but in a hospital bed attended to by strangers (Bregman, 80).

Finally, a good death is often associated with a quick and painless death. To die in one’s sleep, at peace, and free from debilitating or overwhelming pain constitutes a good death. Thus, a lingering death, a violent death, or a death where one endures acute emotional pain (such as fear or a broken relationship) or suffers physically makes for a bad death.

What are Scriptural resources for informing what is a good death?

Jesus’ Death in Mark 14:32-15:41. What are the contrasts and similarities between Jesus’ death and the “good death” of our culture and the death awareness movement? In what ways is Jesus’ death a model for our own? Note how Jesus is willing to die a violent and painful death even though he had a legion of angels who could have rescued him (Matt. 26:53). At the least, this reminds us that while death is an evil, it is not the greatest evil and that while life is a good, it is not the greatest good (Verhey, 321). What do you make of Jesus’ unwillingness to take the wine mixed with myrrh (v. 23)? Does he do this because he wants to die with a clear head, fully suffer the pain, be sure he goes through with God’s plan, or for some other reason? Finally, what do Jesus’ pleas to God in Gethsemane (14:34-36) and on the cross (15:34) tell us about feeling fear, anger, and despair in the midst of our dying?

The story of Judas’ suicide in Matthew 27:3-10. Judas’ death is an example of “bad death” in Scripture; it is an infamous death which we do want to be our own. What makes Judas’ suicide a bad death? Note how he is isolated from God, the other disciples, and even himself in some sense (seen in his desire to undo what he has done). How does this isolation contribute to a ignoble death? What virtues did Judas lack that compelled him to commit suicide (Verhey, 313)? Patience? Courage? Faith? Does this connection between having certain virtues and dying well lend weight to the notion that holy living and holy dying are inexorably linked?
What is the Christian vision of a good death?

Given the above passages of Scripture and our knowledge of the larger story of the Christian faith what can we say makes for a good death?

To begin, we must acknowledge that the threats of death are real. At its core death is frightening because it threatens to alienate us from our bodies, our communities, and our God (Verhey, 337). Death is a journey that must be entered alone; others can accompany us to its bank, but we must cross the river by ourselves, without the companionship of our earthly sojourners.

As we die our bodies begin to fall apart and become an enemy whom we resist instead of cherish. As Christians we are embodied beings. This means that we believe our body is as necessary to our being as our soul. I cannot be fully and wholly me if the two are broken asunder (this is why the resurrection is such good news!). Thus, when death makes our bodies weak, sick, and wracked with pain we begin to experience our bodies not as “us” but as “the enemy” (Verhey, 337). A good death, then, is one where our bodies are cared for. The threat of death to alienate us from our bodies is mitigated when our pain is reduced (even if it risks death in doing so), our bodies nursed and touched by loving hands, or our eyes delighted by seeing the flowers we love (Verhey, 341).

Dying also threatens to separate us from our communities, something the death awareness movement has long realized. We are made for community with others and when our community abandons us to a hospital or, worse, we have no community to accompany us in our dying, death makes its power felt. Thus, a good death is one where we are surrounded by a community who is willing to be present in this final stage of life and so witness to the hope that, in the Church, death does not mean abandonment or devastating loneliness. A death surrounded by those we love may mean death is inadvertently hastened if we expend our energy in reconciling with those from whom we are estranged, but this is not a bad thing for death is neither the greatest evil or the final word.

Finally, death threatens our relationship with God. Faith is not knowledge; it is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). It is no wonder that our trust in God becomes shaken as our bodies and communities become alienated from us. In death we not only worry that our faith will prove unfounded, but also that it may be found wanting when we come into the presence of the Living God. A good death, then, will be one in which we are assured of the presence and goodness of God as we pray, hear the Scriptures read, receive the Eucharist, and are loved by those who surround us with God’s love (Verhey, 343).

We now have a rough outline of what how our faith might inform what it means to die a good death. Before concluding, however, we must note what has not been said about a good death. As Christians, a good death does not mean we are in full control as we die. We do not need to control how or when we die for we trust that God is faithful to give us the courage and patience we need to die well. Also, a good death is not one which burdens no one. In fact, a large part of what it means to belong to a community of those who love each other is “to burden each other – and to find, almost miraculously that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens” (Gilbert Meilander in Neuhaus, 118). This subtle implication of this, and which is made clearer in the story of Judas, is that suicide, whether done by others or ourselves, is not an option. While we may indirectly hasten our death, such as by increasing our pain medication, we ought not do something where the intended goal is death (Verhey, 341). Finally, a good death does not mean we accept it as our “natural” end or as an act of defeat in regard to death. Death, in the Christian worldview, is not natural, it is a result of a fallen world. Neither is death an enemy to be defeated, for death was one of the “powers and authorities” triumphed over on the cross (Col. 2:15). This does not mean we do not acknowledge the realit of death or mourn an untimely death (c.f. Isa. 65:20). However, death should primarily be an act of yielding our spirits to God as an act of trust in the Father (Bregman, 76).


Tags: bioethics · theology

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Jun 25, 2005 at 7:58 am

    a question and a comment.

    Question: At the end you said that death was not an enemy to be defeated. I see why this is important for the argument, but a passage came to mind from Paul. He wrote, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Cor. 15:26). How does that conviction fit into Paul’s argument, and how does I Cor 15 make sense of your argument?

    Comment: At some point you explored the fear of alienation that comes in our thinkig about death. I think that fear shapes all my conceptions of a ‘good’ death (i still have a hard time thinking about death as good). I think I got a good vision of what dying well might look like when I was in Colombia visiting my family. I would like my last years to look like my great-aunt Fanny, or my grandmother Ruby. They live in the downstairs of my aunt Lucero’s house. Since my grandfather Samuel died over 35 years ago, the sisters have become intimate companions. Ruby is surrounded by children, grandkids, and great-grandkids. Fanny is a nun who joined her sister in raising her kids when Samuel died. Ruby and Fanny—family growing old together. Very different lives, seemingly contradictory paths, but joined together by tragedy. Approaching death may not hurt so much when you know—like Ruby and Fanny do—there is someone closeby who appreciates your life, whose life received so much of my own that I know that they carry me with them, that his or her journey is laced with memories of me. I am afraid of death because it threatens to annihilate existence. The companion offers life beyond death, the permanence of traces whose impression escapes erasure.

  • 2 Jason // Jun 30, 2005 at 9:15 am

    I actually agree with you that “acceptance” of death as a natural part of life or the final stage of self-actualization does not mesh well with the Christian vision of death. When acceptance of death is made the goal, it still puts death as the primary obstacle/enemy that must be dealt with.

    I would rather say that there is a time for a Christian to yield, to submit, not to death, for it is not an evil we fight with our power, but to God and God’s timing. I see this when Jesus yields his spirit to the Father while wrestling in the garden of Gesthemane. Practically, I think this means that that Christians do not need to do everything possible to resist death (i.e. ventilators, feeding tubes, every treatment in the book, etc.), but can faithfully yield themselves to God if it seems death is inevitable.

  • 3 Like it or not – we’re all dying! // May 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    [...] I just took a peek at a blog entry about dying well, and thought it had some great light to shed on this subject, pointing out that death should be “accepted as a natural part of life.” Read more on this at Public Market, a blog by Isaac (a Mennonite pastor) and Jason (a web developer and church intern) by clicking [...]