Intersections

Talking about Death in the Midst of Pandemic

by: 
Bryan A. Just, MA

In a previous article in this forum, I wrote about how COVID-19 could serve as a jumping-off point for raising issues of bioethics in the church, issues that extend far beyond the current pandemic. Two examples I gave were of issues related to vaccines/public health and healthcare disparities. However, there is another topic that is just as easily raised and is perhaps even more pressing for the church today: facing death.

In contrast to most of human history, where death was an everyday reality, modern society has marginalized death, which has largely been pushed out of our public consciousness.[1] During the pandemic, however, this has radically changed. A recent New York Times article described the unusual nature of our current moment: “‘it’s so unlike regular life where we all chug along at a kind of level of denial of our mortality . . . . This environment has caused us all to live in a soup of mortality awareness.’”[2]

COVID-19 brought to the fore what we have tried to keep in the background. The horror stories from early in the pandemic—of the critically ill in hospitals, unable to breath despite the best efforts of doctors and modern medicine, dying alone in a sterilized room—have done much to shape perceptions of the pandemic and will long be ingrained in our collective consciousness. COVID-19 has reminded us that death could take any one of us, and that even our most heroic efforts cannot ultimately thwart it.

Once again, though, this provides the church with a phenomenal opportunity to speak into people’s lives. Christians throughout history have developed a vast number of resources related to death and the end of life, and it is time for the modern church to make use of them. The following reflections are drawn from Rob Moll’s book The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come, an excellent and highly recommended resource for both church leaders and lay people on how Christians should approach the end of life.[3]

To begin, we must ensure that our congregants have a robust theology of death. To boil it down into a simplistic phrase, death is a defeated enemy. We can emphasize that death is an unnatural result of humankind’s fall into sin in the Garden of Eden. We were not made to die, and thus it is perfectly normal for us to approach death with some amount of trepidation and horror. Death is the ultimate reminder that we live in a disordered, fallen world.

The foil to this, however, is to remind Christians that for us, death has also been defeated through Christ’s resurrection. For us, death has lost its sting (1 Cor 15:55). In the ultimate reversal, God has allowed death as the only means by which Christians can pass from this life into the next, allowing Paul to say that “to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). This mystery is well-expressed in a seldom-heard verse to the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King”: “And thou, most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our latest breath, O praise him, alleluia! Thou leadest home the child of God, and Christ our Lord the way has trod.”[4] Because of Jesus’ own death and resurrection, death becomes a mercy to Christians and an end to their bodily suffering. Obviously, far more could (and should!) be said, but this can serve as a basis for a Christian theology of death.

With this understanding, we can remind our congregants that death is much more than just the cessation of bodily functions. Death is a spiritual event, and therefore needs to be approached spiritually. Just as we work out our sanctification (realizing that it is God who ultimately works it out within us, Phil 2:12–13), we can engage in reflection and practices that prepare us for the end of our earthy lives. In Moll’s words:

Century after century Christians rehearsed and applied their beliefs about death; throughout their lives they envisioned dying so that at the moment of death they would be prepared. They sought to die reconciled to God and their human brothers and sisters. They gave evidence of their faith in the life to come, either by professing it or by describing their deathbed visions of the heavenly places, often both. They offered comfort to surviving loved ones who desired to hear the last words of the dying who were so close to the eternal enjoyment of life with God.[5]

If preparing for death is a spiritual practice, than the way Christians prepare should look different than the rest of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the perfect opening to begin discussions on what this might look like for Christians today. In a time when the fear of death is at the forefront of people’s minds, we have the opportunity to share Christian truths about what death is and what it means, along with strategies for Christians to prepare themselves and “live fully into the life to come.”

 

References


[1] For some examples of practices around death that we have given up, see Rob Moll, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010), 9–11.

[2] Perri Klass, “Helping Children with Pandemic Grief,” The New York Times, August 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/31/well/family/children-coronavirus-grandparents-grief.html.

[3] Moll, The Art of Dying.

[4] William Henry Draper and St. Francis of Assissi, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” in Ancient and Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship (London: Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd, 2013), 532, https://hymnary.org/hymn/AM2013/532.

[5] Moll, The Art of Dying, 21.