Intersections

Embracing the Art of Dying in the Church Today

by: 
Bryan A. Just, MA

In my previous essay, I wrote about the opportunity presented by COVID-19 for Christians to think deeply about death and the end of life. It is clear that Christians today approach death in ways that are quite different than those who have come before us. While we can celebrate the advances in medical technology that have assisted in postponing death, we should be quite wary of the ways in which these advances have kept us from confronting the reality of our own mortality.

In this essay, I want to provide some practical ways in which Christians can approach the end of their lives both individually and as a believing community. Some of these will be relatively easy to implement; others will both require and lead to drastic changes in our thinking. Once again, these recommendations are largely drawn from Rob Moll’s excellent book The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come.[1]

At the personal level, one of the first things we can do is shift our view of what constitutes a “good death,” which for many involves something quick, easy, and painless. However, Moll has argued that Christians should hope for a slower dying process that allows time to get one’s affairs in order, say goodbye to family and loved ones, prepare oneself spiritually for the next life, and serve as a testimony of faith for the next generation.[2] This is a radical shift, and it may take time before we truly internalize it, but changing our thinking on what constitutes a “good death” will make many of the following suggestions easier to enact.

If we believe that there are “good” ways for Christians to die, then we should talk about them with our doctors and family. Being clear ahead of time—before dealing with a life-threatening illness—about goals of care, desires for the use/non-use of invasive medical technology, and when it is time to stop fighting an illness and begin preparation for death are valuable discussions. Making these wishes clear ahead of time can save a family a great deal of heartache down the road, and also helps attack the stigma around discussing end-of-life matters. Let your family, or for pastors, your congregation, know what you want your own death to look like, and encourage them to do the same.[3]

All of this is part of the Christian tradition of ars moriendi—the art of dying. In the past, when most people were illiterate, Christians developed picture books to help those who could not read contemplate their death and the spiritual struggles they might encounter so that they could prepare themselves. We have the advantage of far, far more resources than were available 1,000 years ago, and we should make use of them.[4] By integrating reflection on our own mortality and eventual death into our devotions and prayer life we can prepare ourselves spiritually for what is to come.[5]

As church communities there are also several things that can be done to inform how we as Christians approach death. One of the most basic is to change how we pray. In many congregations, there is a stigma against acknowledging that someone is dying, and prayers for that person often emphasize either healing or, if their prognosis is unusually bleak, peace and comfort. While there is nothing wrong with these prayers, we can add to them prayers that the one who is ill would die well if it is their time—that they would confess any lingering sin, restore any broken relationships, and set an example of faith to those around them during the dying process.[6]

When congregants are dying, we can encourage the community to visit with them. Rather than limit care to family and medical professionals, we can create a culture in which church members care for their own, even if this is nothing more than being present and spending time with the one who is dying. There is no better way to prepare for our own death than by witnessing the faithful deaths of others.[7]

Once a church member has died, we should not skip over that fact in our rush to celebrate their life and their being in the presence of Jesus. In their obituary, we can include information about how they died, not just how they lived, allowing their example to serve as a final testimony of faithfulness. When it comes time for the funeral, we do not have to tacitly deny the deceased’s death by making the event a “celebration” or “worship” service. Let me be clear, these are both good things, and a funeral should most certainly celebrate the life that was lost and worship the one who created it. But, the funeral is also a time for the community to grieve, to acknowledge the loss it is facing, and to provide support and comfort to the bereaved, and these important functions should not be neglected.[8]

Finally, churches can regularly remember the deaths of those who have died well. Though we may not be able to have church cemeteries or mausoleums in the basement like many ancient churches, we can still be intentional in remembering and sharing the stories of those whose deaths demonstrated faith in God until their final breath.[9]

The above represents just the beginning of ways in which modern Christians can try to reclaim the lost art of dying that was practiced by our forebears; certainly there are more than can be listed here, as well as a variety of ways to adapt them to individual church contexts. But, no matter how we do it, churches need to better prepare their members to face death. In an age when most people do their best to avoid thinking about their own mortality, or even advocate for measures like physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in order to avoid the dying process, approaching the end of life well and demonstrating a good death are ways in which Christians can be a distinctive, counterculture witness.

 

References



[1] Rob Moll, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010).

[2] Moll, The Art of Dying, 29–30.

[3] Moll, The Art of Dying, 85–93. It should also be noted, though, that the phrase “better late than never” certainly applies here. Even if one has already reached an advanced age or been diagnosed with a fatal illness, these conversations are still valuable and could even change the care currently being received.

[4] In addition to the Rob Moll book mentioned throughout this piece, another excellent resources is John Dunlop’s Finishing Well to the Glory of God: Strategies from a Christian Physician (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011). These are both good starting places for those looking to go deeper in this topic.

[5] For more information on the kinds of activities involved in the ars moriendi tradition see Moll, The Art of Dying, 51–68.

[6] Moll, The Art of Dying, 46–47.

[7] Moll, The Art of Dying, 95–115.

[8] Moll, The Art of Dying, 117–26.

[9] Moll, The Art of Dying, 164–68.