Reflecting on his late wife’s attitude towards death in his book on finishing well, Nearing Home (Thomas Nelson) Billy Graham writes, ‘While we found the humour enlightening, we appreciated the truth she conveyed through those few words. Every human being is under construction from conception to death. Each life is made up of mistakes and learning, waiting and growing, practicing patience and being persistent. At the end of construction ? death ? we have completed the process.’
Ruth Graham’s ability to blend the light-hearted with the serious when looking towards death strikes me as unusual. Death is, of course, inevitable for all of us, and yet ? even among Christians ? it is often a much-avoided taboo. According to research commissioned by the Dying Matters coalition in 2012, more than two-thirds (71%) of the public agree that people in Britain are uncomfortable discussing dying, death and bereavement. No doubt the evasion of the subject has been informed by the increasingly medicalised and distanced nature of death, which is often removed from day-to-day family and community life. Dying Matters also say that nearly 60% of UK deaths now take place in hospital, despite the fact that 70% of people would prefer to die at home.
So are we ignoring our own mortality? ‘We live in a culture that prefers to avoid the topic of death. I think this trend will increase with individuals having an insufficient story in their hearts and therefore being unable to cope with the massive implications of their own death,’ says Rev Dr Viv Thomas, associate international director of Operation Mobilisation and honorary teaching pastor at St Paul’s Hammersmith. ‘The more we believe that it is only my personal tomorrow ? or the personal tomorrow of theones I love ? that really matters, the more fearful we will be of death.’
Thomas emphasises that it is not only those without faith who struggle to discuss death. ‘Surprisingly, some churches and church leaders have difficulty talking about death. Death is denied and replaced with the language of healing and positivethoughts. Generally, the more positive or hyped the church culture, the more the subject of death is avoided. Yet you would think that this is one area where we should have something significant to say because of the promise of the new heaven and new earth which we believe is ahead.’
Nor does a belief in the divine equate to a peaceful demeanour in the face of death. Rev Christine Brown, chaplain at St Oswald’s Hospice, Newcastle, says: ‘I’ve known people of faith who have found enormous strength and comfort in knowing that they are on a journey back to the Lord who loves them. But I have also known people of faith who have sadly been terrified of judgement beyond the point of death. I’ve known people who don’t have a faith whose world view is: “Life is unfair; this is the luck of the draw.” They are calm as they approach death with that attitude. I have known people of faith to be angry with God, but someone without faith has no one to be angry with.’
So we can’t assume that a belief in the Christian gospel will lead to acceptance or courage. What, then, should we hope for in death? In a piece entitled ‘Dying Well: a Dangerous Sentiment’ printed in BMS World Mission’s Mission Catalyst magazine, Rev Lucy Berry, pastor of Bethnal Green Meeting House URC, writes: ‘I don’t believe we have the choice to die “well.” [It’s] a dangerously sentimental judgement made by people who yearn to believe we can control what we can’t.
‘Actually, the phrase has about as much meaning as “being born badly”. It suggests an independence, agency, autonomy which is not granted us.’ Is Berry right? Is the concept of ‘dying well’ merely a comforting notion ? or a real possibility?
What makes a good death?
Rev Tom Duncanson, chaplain at St Wilfred’s Hospice, Eastbourne, views a good death as one where the dying person is peaceful, pain-free and with family close by. ‘It’s about being comfortable with where you are as an individual,’ he says. Janet Vickers, who is on the leadership team of River Church, Thames Valley, was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer three months ago. ‘When I think about those final few days…I want to have the presence of God so around me as I am dying, so thatpeople go away feeling loved and inspired,’ she says.
‘Love is the answer to everything ? including the question: What is God? People who I would consider to be in a good place on their deathbed are very much surrounded by love,’ says one former hospice chaplain. ‘One of my most moving experiences was receiving a testimony from an atheist who wrote an open letter saying that he was almost glad of his cancer because he had come to experience love in a way that he never had previously.
Through the eyes of the bereaved
Surely death is never welcome for those who are left behind ? particularly, of course, in the case of tragic or unexpected bereavement. ‘There’s never a good time, as a survivor,’ says George Lynch, who lost his mother a month ago. ‘Even though my mother’s death was expected ? she was an elderly lady, had a strong faith and read her Bible daily…the pain and grief were still there for me. I felt like a little child again, as opposed to the adult who had been caring for her in her final days. I felt lost.’ Lucy Cooper blogs about her experience of both parents being diagnosed with cancer, and losing her father to the illness three years ago at hopefuldaughter.blogspot.com. She says that despite the grief that ensued when her father died, she can describe his death as a good one. ‘The timing did feel right ? although I didn’t understand this when it happened ? but it was God’s timing.On the last night we were together we watched last night of the proms and sang, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. That was the last time he opened his eyes. It was special and emotional; but at no stage did it feel hopeless or as if we were in despair. We felt the presence of Jesus.’
Preparing for death
Remembering that an unexpected death could befall any of us, at any time, leads us to ask how we can best prepare for death, whatever age or stage we are at. Being spiritually and practically prepared, as far as possible, can bring greater peace in the face of death. In Living with Dying (Darton, Longman and Todd), Grace Sheppard writes about journeying with her husband, David, through cancer until his death, four years after diagnosis. Reflecting on this season, she writes: ‘Like adventurers and explorers, we need to prepare carefully for death. Living with David’s dying was certainly an adventure. We both felt like explorers in a new world which was full of surprises, both welcome and unwelcome. This new world was dangerous and called for courage. Emotional and physical exhaustion took its toll. It was frightening, yet love came to our rescue.’
Rev Mike Rattenbury, chaplain at Highland Hospice, Inverness, says that to prepare for death, one question you need to address is: ‘Have you got your affairs in order? Practically and spiritually, this is how you find peace.’ Getting your spiritual affairs in order includes being clear on what you believe, he says. ‘For some people facing the end, that’s a huge challenge. The questions they are asking in the face of death are: “Will what I believe really stand up to be true? Where is God in all this?”’ Hospice chaplains are often working with those who may die imminently, and there isn’t always time to discuss the issues. ‘The sad thing is that in some cases people say, “I really want to talk about these things,” but the illness overtakes them before they have said very much. A lot of people say when they are younger, “Oh, I’ll think about that later.” But there isn’t always the leisure to do so, when “later” comes.’
Duncanson encourages Christians wanting to be in a strong place spiritually when they face death to focus on their daily walk with Jesus, and face unresolved issues in the here and now. ‘We need to keep our account with Jesus clear. Don’t be afraid to explore issues, express doubt and talk with others,’ he says.
Wills and probate lawyer Olivia Hartford encourages people of all ages to give careful consideration to their legal and financial affairs in order to be prepared for death. ‘The way that you set up your legal affairs can impact your mental and, in turn, physical health…I deal with many elderly people who have no family. When they pass away, I know exactly what they want to happen. For them, this creates peace of mind; they can be sure that their wishes will be carried out.’
God our healer
Hartford says that when clients come to see her to make a will, they often find it impossible to voice their funeral plans ? either to her or with their partner. Why is it that we find it so hard to address the details of death? A Christian theology of God as healer can be a stumbling block ? perhaps even causing us to deny the reality of death all together. Thomas says: ‘If you believe that God answers prayer and physical healing takes place, as I do, death talk can be really awkward ? let alone death actually occurring. Because to accept death surely means a lack of faith, does it not? The thinking goes like this: If someone is sick let’s keep positive and full of faith, let’s keep believing and avoid the sin of unbelief through talking about the possibility of death.’
Vickers has found that her terminal cancer diagnosis has refined her theology of a healing God. ‘I believe that Jesus is the healer, and every day I say, “Today could be the day I get healed.” But I am not in a place where I can say, “Today I will be healed” and definitely not, “I am healed”. I am determined to walk this journey in faith and authenticity, knowing God is good, his desire is to bless and he will give me all I need to walk this well. One of the challenges is not to be hopeless and fatalistic,nor get caught up into striving for healing, but to stand in faith in the presence of Jesus.’ Thomas affirms: ‘There is no contradiction between praying for healing and being prepared for a good death. Both require faith and both are realities. We have to live with the big world of both and deal with any potential contradictions. If someone is dying and you deny this on the basis of believing in healing, the pastoral consequences can be disastrous.’
Cooper reflects on her father’s death as the means through which God finally brought him healing. ‘I really believe that there was healing in his death, because he had suffered so much,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t the healing that we wanted, but it was the ultimate one.’
Talking openly about death
If we are going to try to prepare for a good death ? and help those in our churches do so ? the first step must be open communication on the topic. ‘We don’t talk about death enough ? that’s why death can be so stressful for the bereaved. Suddenly you are forced to talk about it,’ says Pauline Miller, director of funeral arranging service, The Personal Touch, who started the service following the death of her parents. A vacuum of discussion about death compounds related anxiety. ‘A lot of people have fears and anxieties around death that they can’t express,’ says Vickers. ‘As churches, the best way to prepare people to die well is to teach them how to live well now. We must engage with the subject of death; this way people can work out how to keep on seeking the kingdom right up to the point where they die.’
Excessive talk about death would deny the hopeful eschatology that we can rejoice in as Christians, however. Lynch is learning this as he journeys with a brother who has a terminal illness. ‘You can talk about death too much. My brother gets far more out of life by living as though he has no illness. He is a devout and dedicated Christian and has thought about his eternal destination.’ It is Lynch’s relationship with God that enables him to keep death in its right perspective: ‘If you have faith first,then faith informs your approach to death. If you don’t have the Christian faith, then dealing with death may inform your approach to faith.’
Dying well ? in doubt and faith
The Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield, Suffragen Bishop of Swindon, who was diagnosed with cancer three months ago and is undergoing chemotherapy, shared with me how supporting a friend and fellow clergyman in his dying hour helped shape his theology of death. ‘Although he had a strong faith, when it came to crossing over the river of death, he said to me that he was scared. He was not as faithfilled as he thought he would be. When Jesus was crucified, he felt abandoned and lonely, and yet he was as perfectly in the Father’s will as he could have been. That tells me that no one can be in a place of abandonment by God unless they choose to put themselves there.
‘Isn’t that amazing? It’s a no-lose situation. If you are not afraid, it’s because you know that God is with you, and if you are, you know that God is trustworthy. I would want to help people not to fear now that they may feel afraid in the face of death.
‘We need to help people to die as well as we possibly can…But at the end, some people may struggle to die at peace. That might include a faithful Christian who, at the last ? even though he knows all about grace ? wonders whether he is good enough. The pre-eminent thing is that…God works all things for good in the lives of those who love and fear him. These are things I amthinking about now that I have never thought about before.’
The bishop’s words remind us that at life’s conclusion we will have no option but to fall into the gracious arms of the divine. Duncanson says: ‘Death is a point that we can do no other than put our trust in God. All we can say is: “Lord, I’m in yourhands; you carry me through this part of the journey.” Faith is risky living; what greater risk can there be than in the face of death? We will need to say: “I don’t know what is ahead, but I choose to trust in God.”’