Summary: If we take the time to realistically examine our culture, especially our western culture, we will readily see that death is not something we think about very much.
For Christians, the season of Lent is the time of our church year like no other because our focus is drawn on a very unpopular topic, death. We are taken on a journey covering the last weeks of Jesus’ ministry, which ends with his horrible torture and death by crucifixion. But because we understand the entire story of Jesus, why he needed to die as he did, and what happened after he died, we can say that Jesus’ death was a good thing! It may sound strange to say that any death could be a good thing but if you think about it, there could be no resurrected Jesus without him dying beforehand. There would be no promise of everlasting life, which is the cornerstone of our Christian faith, if Jesus had not been resurrected after his death.
If we take the time to realistically examine our culture, especially our western culture, we will readily see that death is not something we think about very much. In fact we place many of the unpleasant things in our life, such as any loss, grief, and death so deep in our minds that when these events occur in our lives we find ourselves in total shock. We are totally unprepared to deal with their sudden arrival. Dr. Ira Byock says, “While death may cast a long shadow upon us as we journey through life, Americans typically refuse to notice. But, then, when death approaches, we are stunned and feel unprepared to deal with the situation we face.” But we must deal with these unpleasant situations when they occur because they are a part of life. In fact, when discussing death, it is realistic to say that we begin to die from the moment we are born.
When looking at death we forget that it is a natural phenomenon that is grounded in humankind’s existence from the beginning of creation. Genesis 3:19 tells us that humankind is not immortal but has a finite lifespan; “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And to quote Morrie Schwartz, “It’s natural to die. The fact that we make such a big hullabaloo over it is all because we don’t see ourselves as part of nature. We think because we’re human we’re something above nature.”
One of the reasons I believe death is such an unpopular topic is that when we die we lose everything, family, friends, possessions, and relationships we have built over our lifespan. Or do we? We must ask ourselves, do we lose everything or just lose the material things in life that many of us come to cherish so much. The problem as I see it is that for many in our society we love our material things so much that we place them before most everything else, even before the God who is our Creator. But I think we also lose sight of what we gain in death. Now that may seem like another baffling statement; what can we possibly gain by dying? But if you think about it, we gain release from our pain and suffering, for the elderly their tired and worn bodies that refuse to respond are made anew, and, more importantly, as a believer in Jesus Christ our earthly relationships that may have failed are replaced with our eternal relationship with our Savior. Jesus’ promise to all believers guarantees that relationship when Jesus says in John 14:1-2, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?” Jesus is telling us that as a believer of his message we will be rewarded with life everlasting with him. We will leave our troubles behind, our sicknesses behind, and relish in the eternal peace with God. No, we do not lose everything when we die because if we believe in Jesus Christ and the promises he has made to us, the relationship we share with him can never be taken away from us.
I think the idea of death is also very unpopular because of its association with pain and suffering. And realistically so because pain and suffering are a part of many deaths, especially those deaths following lingering illnesses, debilitating injuries, or certain neurological diseases. Death can truly be an agonizing experience but death can also be a peaceful experience. For example, the death of my father was what I call a lonely and agonizing death because he died alone in a hospital room with a myriad of machines performing his ‘living’ for him. He was unaware of our presence prior to his death due to various medications and I still wonder if he subconsciously questioned where his family was. I also question if my father had any feeling when his heart finally stopped. I wonder if he was finally at peace after his time of suffering. But I have come to realize that death does not have to happen as my father’s did. From the moment my wife’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided exactly how she wanted to die because she had the luxury of hospice care that my father did not. Marilyn made her own funeral arrangements as well as wrote a long letter detailing how her estate was to be divided. She took it upon herself to make sure her children were not burdened with these decisions, which made her death somewhat easier for my wife, her sister, and her brother to bear. I also think that Marilyn enjoyed remaining in control of her life until almost the very end. With the hospice care I mentioned, she was able to die comfortably at home surrounded by prayer and singing with her loving family at her side. That, my friends, is my idea of dying well, which is the title of Dr. Ira Byock’s book where he says, “Dying Well is a book about living. It is a book about realizing the human potential to grow, as individuals and as members of families, through the process of dying.”