Summary: Death is a terrible curse, but death will not have the last word. For death will die and what awaits those who are in Christ is glory.
The first funeral I presided over was for Mitch Mitchell. He died in his seventies of cancer. He died with his loving wife and family around him. The sanctuary was full for his funeral, even though he had not held important jobs and positions. He was simply a well-loved man. Soon afterwards I participated in the funeral of James Mitchell (not related) who died in his sixties from a heart attack. That was a sadder funeral, but his widow and only son (in his early twenties) held up reasonably well. But the funeral a few months later was the saddest. It was for Randy, the only son, who died in a car accident.
His funeral was the hardest to do because of the suddenness of his death and the overwhelming grief of his mother who had lost her husband and son. But he was not the youngest. This past January, Anni Jordan died at two and a half from a long illness she had had near birth. There was Alli Large, who died at the age of 26 after years of battling cancer.
Which is worse, by the way, to die suddenly or through illness that gives time to settle one’s affairs and say goodbye? With the former, you experience little pain and don’t have time to fear death. But then, you don’t get to say goodbye to your loved ones, which they regret, not to mention their having to weather the shock of an unexpected loss. But with the latter, there is time to think about death and to fear it. Then there is the pain and discouragement of growing sicker and feebler, and the burden put on loved ones to care for you.
Which is better, to die young before “one’s time,” or old beyond “one’s time.” Is it better to be mourned by many who, though they bemoan your early death, will remember you in the prime of life; or is it better to live to old age when you have outlived most of your peers? No one mourns your early passing, but then few recall you in your younger years, and you have had time to regret lost relationships and lost strength.
When we were in seminary, Ginger had a job as a home care assistant helping the elderly. I remember being in one house and looking at a picture of a beautiful woman, probably in her 20s. It was a picture of the woman Ginger was helping. We did not know that young woman. We did not know her as a young woman newly married, like we were. How many times have I heard the phrase, “If you had only known her/him when she/he was younger.” But that fate awaits us all if we live long, because we have bodies that age and weaken.
But it seems sadder to die young, such as Annie who barely began life, or Alli who died at the age when her friends were getting married. There is my friend and spiritual mentor, Rich Scheer, who died of leukemia as he was preparing for the ministry, and James Boice, who died in the prime of his ministry. Such deaths seem more tragic, more wasteful.
Is there ever a “right time” to die? I’ve never heard someone who lost a dearly loved one say, “Glad to see him or go. Good timing.” The only times in which we welcome death for ourselves or our loved ones is when death brings an end to suffering. But it is the end of suffering, not the end of life, certainly not the departure of the person we loved, that we welcome. Even then, the grief is great. We all know – perhaps we have been the ones – husbands and wives who for months, even years, wore themselves out taking care of spouses who died of debilitating illnesses. We would think that when death came, they would be relieved, but instead, their grief is doubled.
And what of "good" deaths and "bad" deaths? We talk about wanting to die a good death or hoping not to have a bad death. We mean, of course, the circumstances. To die young is a bad death; so is to die in pain or violently; or to die by accident ("he shouldn't have died"). To die in old age is a good death if there is no pain and loved ones are around. It is okay to die suddenly after a certain age (what age?) and if one's health had begun to decline (thus avoiding a drawn out death). We dread the death of debilitating illness. Listen to John Donne's first essay that he wrote during a time of serious illness:
Variable, and therefore miserable condition of Man; this minute I was well, and am ill, this minute. I am surprised with a sudden change, and alteration to worse, and can impute it to no cause, nor call it by any name. We study health, and we deliberate upon our food, and drink, and exercises; and we hew and polish every stone that goes to that building, our body; and so our health is a long and regular work. But in a minute a canon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all; a sickness unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiosity; nay, undeserved, if we consider only disorder, summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroys us in an instant. O miserable condition of Man, which was not imprinted by God, who as he is immortal himself, had put a beam of immortality into us, which we might have blown into a flame, but blew it out by our first sin… So that now, we do not only die, but die upon the rack, die by the torment of sickness; nor that only, but are pre-afflicted, super-afflicted with these jealousies and suspicions and apprehensions of Sickness, before we can call it a sickness; we are not sure we are ill; one hand asks the other by the pulse, and our eye asks our urine, how we do. O multiplied misery! we die, and cannot enjoy death, because we die in this torment of sickness…