Intersections

Preparing for a Good Death Today | Part 3

by: 
Jürgen-Burkhard Klautke, PhD

 

Editor’s note: This is the final of three essays on the historical meaning of the term “euthanasia.” This essay is adapted from an article that appeared in Dignitas 25, no. 3 (2018). Dignitas is the quarterly publication of The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Translated by Mario Tafferner, MA.

What of the older considerations regarding the “good death” expounded in the earlier parts of this essay is relevant for a Christian today? In my opinion, it is, first of all, necessary to think about the problems related to dying a “good death” as a Christian in our current secularized society. On the one hand, the media depict death unscrupulously both in the news and also, and that to an even greater extent, in a never-ending stream of (crime) movies entertaining through murder and homicide. Numbness in the face of death is an unsurprising result.[1]

On the other hand, we live in a time in which death is largely banned from the public sphere and outsourced into specialized institutions such as hospices and hospitals. Often, death only appears as a more or less irritating disruption of societal economy. Otherwise, death is commonly ignored in an Epicurean fashion: “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we will be dead” (1 Cor 15:32).

Preparing for a good death in a society which focuses on the temporal world is not easy for a Christian. On the contrary: it is a struggle. Professionals attempt to relieve the dying from pain, to feed him artificially, and to give him breath with a ventilator. While it is commendable that medical advances are utilized, a tension may arise between the necessary medical procedures and the need for counseling at the end of life. For instance, in order to pray with the dying Christian, to read Scripture with him, and to talk to him about the imminent journey in a confident manner, undisturbed privacy is necessary.

Having discussed these divergences, there are five essential aspects we can receive from both the aforementioned considerations and Scripture to prepare for a “good death.”

Preparation for a Good Death: Experiencing the Finitude of Temporal Live

Whether it is helpful to speak of an “art of dying” (ars moriendi) dependends on its definition. In any case, Scripture does not teach a celebration of one’s death. On the one hand, in the process of dying, one should not scoff death (as the Amalekite Agag did: “Truly, death’s bitterness has left me” 1 Sam 15:32). On the other hand, excessive sentimentality is not suitable for a Christian either.

Bodily deterioration and grave illness might cause the final months or weeks to be almost unbearable. In many cases, this period is overshadowed by anxiety and horror (Ps 39:5–6; 55:4ff). However, it is good that one experiences his own finitude. The Bible verse “Lord, teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12) still applies today. It is possible that a dying person lives out his last days more earnestly in the face of directly experienced finitude than he or she did during previous periods of life.

Preparation for a Good Death: Bidding Farewell to the World

When people today speak about a good death, they usually envision a quick death involving as little suffering as possible. Hence, a good death becomes an unexpected death which surprises the person. The Epicurean pleasure-society favors heart attacks, quick deaths on the road, or emergency operations resulting in the death of the patient.

It is quite telling that eras dominated by Christianity understood a quick death to be tragic. Often relatives are left with questions: Should they have talked about something? Should they have told their son, husband, wife what they meant to them?

In contrast a dying process during which one was able to settle his personal affairs was understood to be a good death. Such personal affairs may include an advance directive, an appointment of healthcare proxy, or arrangements for the funeral. However, on one’s deathbed, it is of primary importance to discuss important issues with one’s spouse, children, and close relatives so that quarrels, strife, or other doubts regarding personal property do not rise up among the survivors.

Last but not least, bidding farewell to this world and its affairs is important. This means that it is important to say goodbye to one’s loved relatives. Undoubtedly, this is not easy. It causes pain. There is the temptation to avoid saying goodbye and to argue that things will become better despite better knowledge. But this is not appropriate in light of the sincerity of this moment. It is dishonest.

Preparation for a Good Death: Having Trust in the Triune God

It is possible that a dying person who is surrounded by or hooked up to medical machines asks the question: What am I actually afraid of? Of the pains or of dying? Whatever the answer is, a Christian is called to put his trust in God in the dying process. Precisely during this time, he needs to seek comfort and hope in his faithful savior Jesus Christ. During this phase, it can be helpful to remember that God himself participates in a human body (Col 2:9): Jesus Christ became a man. Not only did he turn towards the sick and dying, he also suffered an incomparably more painful death.

Preparation for a Good Death: Reconciliation and Forgiveness

Given the face of eternity, reconciliation with one’s neighbor and the knowledge that one will soon stand before one’s judge (Heb 9:27) and savior (Phil 1:21–23) indispensably belong to a “good death.” If the relationship between a dying person and a surviving person is burdened, this is the final possibility for reconciliation and forgiveness in the face of approaching death.

Undoubtedly, it will also be important to order one’s own life before God and to ask for his forgiveness of sin and guilt. Christian churches use known rites for this, such as the anointing of the sick, the final anointing, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on one’s deathbed, or the blessing on one’s deathbed. We shall not engage this matter much further. A handed down blessing for the dying may read as follows:

God, the Father, bless you
who created you according to his image.

God, the Son, bless you
who redeemed you by his suffering and death.

God, the Spirit, bless you
who called you to life and sanctified you.

God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
accompany you through the darkness of death.
He shall be gracious in judgement and give you peace
and eternal life. Amen.[2]

Preparation for a Good Death: Hope for Eternity

Talking about a “good death” would be charade if it did not happen in awareness of eternal life. For the Christian, a “good death” does not consist in a “death with dignity.” For him, death is not merely the end to biological existence. Death is not something natural that “belongs to life” but a judgement instituted by God because of Adam’s fall into sin (Gen 3:19; Rom 5:12; 6:23) which extends to all people (Ps 89:49), even all of creation (Rom 8:20). That death is also a judgement for concrete singular sins is not impaired by that (Prov 11:19; 1 Cor 11:30; Rev 18:8).

Death is not only God’s judgement on us, it is also our enemy. It is not only our enemy, it is also the enemy of God (1 Cor 15:26; Rev 20:14). God does not only lead into death, he also brings out of death (1 Sam 2:6). God is the savior from death (Matt 4:16; 2 Cor 1:9–10;). Since Christ’s resurrection, death is a defeated enemy. Christ destroyed its power (1 Cor 15:55) and brought life and incorruptibility to light (2 Tim 1:10). Now, death cannot separate anyone who believes from the love of God (Rom 8:38–39). Christ holds the keys of death (Rev 1:18). Through his death, Christ has freed us from our fear of death (Heb 2:14).

In other words: death does not have the final word. It is not ultimate but the bridge on the path to glory. It is the departure for the city which is built by God (Heb 11:14–16). In contrast to those “who have no hope,” a Christian has this hope (1 Thes 4:13). The word which the prophet Hosea once pronounced as a word of judgement (“Death where is your sting? Where is your victory?” Hos 13:14) is transformed into joyful rejoicing on basis of the resurrection of the Son of God (1 Cor 15:55). Therefore, the most important preparation for a “good death” consists in not losing sight of eternal life and the resurrection of the dead and in holding fast to the work of Christ in faith. Only in looking at Christ overcoming death is it possible to speak about “good dying” and a “good death”—that is, euthanasia in the true sense of the word.

Part IPart II

 


[1]Cf. Hans Schwarz, Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 4.

[2]This is the so called “Valet Blessing;” Cf. Jochen Arnold, Theologie des Gottesdienstes: Eine Verhältnisbestimmung von Liturgik und Dogmatik (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004), 456.