Death and dying are powerful parts of ministry. For more than 44 years, I have served as either an institutional chaplain or parish pastor. In each context, death and dying form a strong component of the ministry we provide to people. During the first weeks of this year, we have learned of the deaths of Pope Benedict XVI, Barbara Walters, Pelé and many others. Yet what continues to surprise me is how unprepared we are for death.
We know that no one gets out of life alive. We chuckle at the old saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Each year we plan to pay our taxes and might even consult with taxation professionals, yet we never take the time to plan for our deaths.
We may have a will, but have we completed advanced directives? Have we shared with our families what we do or do not want at our funerals? Have we told our loved ones what we will miss about them once we or they have died?
One hallmark of the Christian faith is that it prepares us to face death. We are taught that death is a reality we all will experience. Jesus died a real death. The path to resurrection lies through this experience. We do not get a pass, a detour or a way around this reality. Each of us will walk through the experience of death. Yet our faith holds up strong words of encouragement and hope for all of us.
Through Scripture we learn that God is with us as we “walk through the darkest valley” of the shadow (Psalm 23) and that God is with us in our grief, showing us the way to grieve with hope (1 Thessalonians 4). Our role as people of faith is to comfort one another through the experience of death and grief (2 Corinthians 1).
While these and other Scripture passages guide us to face the reality of death and grief, we continue to live unwilling to prepare or discuss this reality. The result is that we complicate our own grief and the grief of our loved ones by leaving unresolved loose ends. A more faithful way, I believe, is for us to make plans, have courageous conversations and face death with the assurance that we have done the faithful task of preparing ourselves and our loved ones for the reality of death.
…we complicate our own grief and the grief of our loved ones by leaving unresolved loose ends.
Many years past at the hospital where I am chaplain, a young, vibrant and faithful leukemia patient was readmitted to the oncology unit after a stem cell transplant failed. For a few days the medical team ran tests to search for something that might change this situation. Finally, this patient’s primary oncologist delivered the news that it was time to move to hospice care and prepare for death. The patient, a matter-of-fact guy who enjoyed deer hunting and his work as an electrician, responded, “I knew. I could tell weeks ago. Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” The physician responded, “I didn’t want to take away your hope.” To which this man of faith chuckled and said, “If you think my faith was totally in you, you’re wrong. My faith lies in the God who watches over me and my family. Now I want to go home to watch the deer on my property until my life is done.”
A common moment when we start to talk about death and dying is while we are preparing our last will and testament. We arrange for the distribution of assets, the care of minor children and other dependents, and we manage financial matters such as naming a power of attorney. It is a good start, yet we have more to do.
Advance directives are documents that provide your loved ones, your physician and others information about your wishes, should you not be able to communicate them. You can name a healthcare representative who has the authority to make decisions and ensure that your wishes are followed throughout a critical health-related event.
Of course, designating a healthcare representative means having a heart-to-heart conversation with this person or persons to make sure those closest to us know and understand our wishes. Sometimes disagreement arises among those involved. It is better to discuss and hopefully resolve these questions before a terminal event occurs, not to complicate our death and dying with a surprising upset for those closest to us. A way we can comfort those who will grieve is honest, faithful preparation. As you complete this task, know that advance directives are different from state to state. Be sure to consult with someone familiar with the laws and documents for your state.
Arrangements after death
Increasingly, we all need to talk through how we want our body cared for and what services we would like. Unlike in the past, we have several options. Today, cremation is quickly outpacing the tradition of a full-body burial, and loved ones have many options for what to do with cremains (the cremated ashes). Individuals are also making unique decisions for the type of remembrance service they want to commemorate their death.
Making sure your wishes are known is quite important, as your plans impact funeral home costs and the timing and location of your desired services.
An older couple made an appointment to see their pastor regarding their funeral wishes. As they were discussing plans for their respective services, the wife blurted out to the pastor, “If you get up and read the 23rd psalm at my funeral, I will come back to haunt you!” Many people regard this powerful psalm as one of the most comforting and meaningful at the time of death. When the pastor inquired why she did not want Psalm 23 read, she explained with a mischievous smile, “I have listened to that psalm at the funerals for most of my family and friends. I am tired of it. Can’t you be a bit more creative for my funeral?”
While death is a personal experience, it is also a communal event, involving the community in which we live. Your loved ones, friends, colleagues and neighbors will all be impacted by your death. They will grieve, and they will need a time and a place to share that grief. So death rituals and traditions are important. From the eulogy to the green bean casserole, these faithful practices provide mourners with meaning, purpose and hope.
A gift you can give to them is to lessen the decisions and business to which they must attend at the time of your death, through faithful planning and preparation. In this way, they can more easily live into their grief and experience the blessings of grief (Matthew 5). Your courageous, faithful planning and preparation is a gift of hope to those who will grieve your departure from this realm.
Your courageous, faithful planning and preparation is a gift of hope to those who will grieve your departure from this realm.
Those we leave behind
Last week I stumbled upon the movie Memorial Day, the story of a World War II veteran who is struggling with memory issues and of his grandson, who becomes a Gulf War veteran.
At a certain point, the grandfather takes the time to write a letter to his grandson, stating the respect and love he has for the younger man. The movie reminds us that yet another way we can plan and prepare for death is to write letters or make recordings to give voice to the things we want to say to those we will leave. Yes, this is hard and sad. At the same time, in my experience, when we do this, much humor and joy emerge. The bittersweetness of grief finds a way into our own lives and into the lives of those who will miss us.
The faithful path through grief
Like people from all times and places, we naturally want to avoid or circumvent the pain of grief. Our faith teaches us, however, that the only faithful path takes us through our grief. We need to walk through the swirl of grief with all its emotions, thoughts, ponderings and struggles. We learn more about ourselves and our faith when we grapple with grief. It is not easy. It is not fun. Yet it is the faithful path that leads to an enduring hope.
We have just entered the season of Lent. Every year, we begin our journey through Lent with these words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” With this we affirm the reality of our deaths. We do not escape death. And we have a path toward faithfully dying.
This Lent, may each of us take a step along this path as we move closer to embracing that “in life and in death we belong to God,” as we say in “A Brief Statement of Faith.”
Where to start your planning:
Final will and testament
This arranges for the distribution of assets, the care of minor children and other dependents, and management of financial matters.
These documents inform your loved ones, doctors and others of your wishes in the event you are unable to communicate.
Designate a person who has legal authority to make decisions about your care and ensure your wishes are followed throughout a critical health-related event. Be sure to acquire legal documentation according to the laws of your state for this person.
Do you wish to be cremated? Do you wish to have a memorial service, or a funeral? Will you have military honors? Providing documentation for your wishes will help your loved ones to make plans.