I know what you’re thinking… “Not another article about how to die well.”
No? We don’t talk about this much, do we? Death is a subject that’s generally avoided in our culture. Have any discussion about death, and someone’s likely to say something like, “That’s so morbid.” Which is usually to suggest that it’s not a pleasant or welcome conversation. It’s abnormal.
In our culture, we’re either privileged or burdened—depending on how you look at it—to be much further removed from death than most people across the world and throughout time. Here and now, people die mostly in institutions—hospitals and nursing homes—and “bodies are whisked out of sight from bed to morgue to funeral home, where morticians, not family members, prepare them for burial.”[1. Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing] And more and more often, we don’t view a person’s body, either at visitation or a funeral. That despite the fact that we’ve developed all sorts of practices to preserve and beautify people’s bodies with things like embalming and heavy face powder. When we were in Spain, we were surprised to see that most funerals take place within 24 hours of death. Embalming is a new and rare practice there, so you can’t wait five days to have a funeral.
We’re afforded a certain separation from death that most people in history haven’t had. And as a result, we’re able to avoid thinking about death in a way that most people have had to face.
A philosopher named Kerry Walters made an interesting comment about that. Here’s what he says:
“Many of us die badly not because we’re wicked or weak people, but because we simply haven’t been taught how to die well […] You can’t really prepare for something you spend a lifetime avoiding.” [1. From “The Art of Dying and Living” in Baylor’s Christian Reflection]
Now look at this as a contrast. A physician who treated several Methodists made this claim to Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism:
“Most people die for fear of dying; but, I never met with such people as yours. They are none of them afraid of death, but are calm, and patient, and resigned to the last.”
Those early Methodists actually made it a practice to publish the stories of several people’s deaths. Some of their greatest testimonies were about how people died. So there’s a book out now with 98 different accounts of early Methodists’ deaths––the kind of book you can hardly resist buying, right? It’s titled Our People Die Well because the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, said that one time about Methodists: “Our people die well.”
So what does that even mean? What is it to die well? And how can we prepare to die well?
Living for the Lord, Dying for the Lord
If you’ve been reading at this site for a while, you may know that I’ve had two very special people in my life die—and die young—in this past year. The first was Dori Deitrich.
Dori and her husband, Matt, were in my youth group several years ago. Theirs was the second wedding I officiated. Since then, they had become good friends. Youth ministers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but their two pictures never came off our refrigerator.
The other person was David Sparks. David was my youth minister when I was in middle school and had become a real friend and mentor of mine. Dori and David were both diagnosed with cancer back in 2013 and both died just about a year after their diagnoses.
Each of their deaths was difficult for me, but the way that they both died left quite an impact. As they were dying, these two were incredible models of strength. They were the ones comforting their own families. To be clear, they grieved and hurt and asked questions. But they were also willing to let go. I still remember Dori saying, “Everyone around me is treating death as this awful thing, but doesn’t this mean I get to be with Jesus?”
And David continued sending me text messages that were all gratitude and encouragement, even in his final weeks. They both died quickly, young, and with a lot still to live for. But they died with an amazing peace and a trust in God that was growing, not weakening, even in those times. That’s dying well. Though each of our deaths will be different—some of us old, some of us young, some long and drawn out, some quick and unexpected—this is something we all face (unless Christ comes again soon!), and it’s important to consider our deaths in light of our faith.
In Romans 14, the apostle Paul is writing to a group of Christians who have different practices. Some of them eat meat, some eat only vegetables. Some observe one day as more sacred than others while others consider every day alike. And rather than settling their dispute, he simply says, “Each of you is doing what you do for the Lord.” And then he makes this interesting comment, beginning at verse 7:
“For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”
If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Your life is not your own. It’s a gift from God. Paul goes on to say in verse 12: “So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.”
Your life is not your own. It’s a gift from God. Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. Everything else below is some observations about what that means for us.
A first observation: dying well begins with living well.
How could David and Dori die tragic, early deaths, and yet die with such peace? I would suggest it’s because they lived well.
At both of their graveside services, someone read over them this common passage from the Book of Revelation:
“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”[1. Rev 14:17]
They’ll rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them. That word that’s translated “labor” here isn’t just any work, it’s a reference to a faith that endures hardship, trouble, and difficulty. For those who live well, whose faith endures through storms–, God assures us both a great blessing and a rest from those storms in death.
For both David and Dori, their quantity of life was shorter than expected. But the length of our lives has no great or final significance. It’s the quality of how we’ve lived that matters.
A verse in the book of Hebrews might give the best one verse summary of what it looks like to live well:
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.[1. Heb 12:14]
You’ve heard the stories of people who didn’t die well. Maybe you’ve been unfortunate to see some up close. The person who goes to their grave bitter, alienated and estranged. Or the person whose own vices took greater control the longer they lived.
This verse in Hebrews calls us to the opposite. To be people of peace and holy people.
A practical suggestion for you today… You want to die well? Is there anyone you need to reconcile with? Have you made every effort to live in peace? If not, can you go, before this week ends, and make every effort to reconcile?
To take that even a step further, away from just the negative relationships… Is there anyone you need to affirm? Anyone that, if you lost the chance, you’d be especially upset that you never said what you should have said? If so, is there a chance for you to do that this week?
And then a question from the other part of that Hebrews verse: are you living a holy life? Do you need to repent from anything? When we live disobedient to God, we alienate ourselves from him—not because God doesn’t want anything to do with us, but because we choose to estrange ourselves from God.
For Christians, right at the center of why we can die well, and why we should die well is this: If Christ is your Lord while you live, you can rest assured that he will be your Lord when you die, too.
Whether it’s with people or with God, to die well means to be reconciled in those relationships. We die well because we’re reconciled people.
Willing, Though Not Eager, to Die
Now a second observation about our life as a gift from God: dying well means being willing, though not eager, to die.
This was one of the most remarkable things about the accounts of those early Methodists’ deaths—and the same that I saw in David and Dori. They wanted to live, but they were unafraid to die.
We live in an unusual time. Our technology has advanced so much that we can keep the body alive, even when we maybe shouldn’t. We can fight and claw and preserve life, even if we shouldn’t. There are times that we can keep someone’s body alive, but their quality of life is so poor that we might ask if we’ve fought a battle that wasn’t meant to be fought. Are we clinging too tightly to life in some of these instances, refusing to give our lives over to God in death?
My wife works in a hospital, and she has seen several patients who are in their last days, but whose families refuse to sign a “Do Not Resuscitate” order. What that means: if a frail, 93 year-old woman’s heart stops, the medical staff are required to administer CPR. If they bring that person back to life, it will likely be with a number of broken ribs and some awfully painful days to come. Sometimes it takes the family seeing the pain that was caused before they’ll sign one of those orders.
Why? Why do we refuse to sign “Do Not Resuscitate” orders for people who we know are going soon? Because we keep wanting to cling to life, even when it’s time to allow someone to say farewell. We keep wanting more closure. But a brilliant theologian named Tom Long surprised me with this notion recently. He said that “closure” isn’t what we seek as Christians.[1. In The Good Funeral] Death marks a dramatic tension, but it doesn’t mark the end. Whenever we proclaim the Apostle’s Creed together, we say, “I believe in the communion of saints.” That claim says that for those who believe, there’s no “closure,” but unending praise and participation in God’s ceaseless creativity. We don’t need a full farewell. This isn’t the end. Just a transition.
If we’re honest, many of us are downright afraid of death. That was what that physician noted as the biggest difference between the Methodists he saw and those other patients. He said none of those Methodists were afraid to die.
This certainly isn’t the same as taking life for granted, or treating this gift of life with disregard. Actually, we might even say the opposite. If you’re afraid to die, you’re also going to have a hard time living well. I want to share a quote with you from a brilliant man named GK Chesterton. He said this in a book you really must read, called Orthodoxy. This is one of the longest quotes I’ve shared, but it hit me so square that I wanted to share it all with you:
‘Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book.
This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.
No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.’
He writes there at the end about the one who dies for the sake of living. He was talking there about Christian martyrs, people who loved God more than life and feared sin more than death. If life is a gift from God, this is the way we live—enjoying it, but not clinging to it at all costs.
And then that mention of suicide shows the other end of the spectrum. If life is a gift from God, we don’t actively bring about our deaths. There are cultures where suicide is considered honorable. Christians reject that notion. This life is a gift from God, and we will not actively end it.
There’s a “dignity with death” movement that has gained a lot of traction recently. It’s about allowing terminally-ill people to request and receive medication that will hasten their deaths. You may have heard about this recently because of a young woman name Brittany Maynard. She was 29 years-old and learned that she had aggressive brain cancer. And so she decided that as she declined, she would take her own life rather than go through the suffering that comes with later-stage cancer.
Joining with Christ
Let me make a third observation that I think relates to Brittany Maynard’s situation: when we die, it’s a joining with Christ in his sufferings.
I say that relates because we have a Savior who did not, in any way, die an easy death on his own terms. So Paul writes to one group of early Christians:
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.[1. Phil 3:10]
For Christians, what if suffering doesn’t reflect a lack of dignity, but an actual becoming like Christ? Or maybe to ask it differently—even if we should lose some of our dignity in death, don’t we have a Savior who lost his dignity for us? For you who are baptized, that baptism was a preparation for your death. It was a sort of burial into Christ’s death—a death to self.
Though it may look undignified to our world, even our suffering can be beautiful and Christ-like.
Look at what another woman also dying of cancer, her name was Kara Tippetts, wrote to Brittany Maynard:
Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known […] That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath, matters — but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.
For some of us, dying well may mean suffering and difficulty and not having things on our own terms. But in that there’s a beauty—a joining with Christ and a participation in his sufferings, allowing God who has given us life to decide when it will end, as well.
And then, finally, one last observation about dying well. I just showed you Philippians 3:10. Let’s look at that again, but now also with the next verse:
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
When Paul writes about his death, he doesn’t stop with that. What’s the end point? “And so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Dying well is dying with hope. Dying well is dying with this great assurance that just as we join Christ in death, we’ll join him in life, and life eternal.
Why do Christians die differently? Because we die with a great, eternal hope. Because Christ has gone before us. He’s made a way. He has suffered. He has died. And now he’s risen and lives forever to intercede for us. And for all who follow him, we’ll live and reign with him forever. That’s the hope we live with, and the hope we die with.