The Art of Dying

In earlier times, followers of Christ were greatly concerned with dying well.  Death was thought of as an opportunity to witness to our belief that “death has been swallowed up in victory.”  In our modern world, death is relegated to hospital rooms and nursing homes where people often go to die in private to “spare” their loved ones.  As someone who spends time with families before death and after death, there is a great need for us to resurrect the art of dying well.

This means seeing death not as the end of our story, but as the beginning of a great adventure.  It means not being afraid to think about the brevity of life.  It means seeing death as an opportunity to witness to our faith and bless those that we love.  Below are some very practical suggestions that I would give to you after spending the last 20 years in ministry.

  1. Live well so that I don’t have to lie at your funeral.  Your life preaches your greatest sermon.  The key to dying well is to live a life of faith and to bless those around you so that you leave a godly legacy.  No pastor can outpreach an ungodly life.
  2. Have a will that clearly expresses your wishes for the things that God has entrusted to you.  Have you been wise in how you have handled your estate?  Many people pay tens of thousands to lawyers and the government because they were afraid to ponder their death and they were unwilling to sit down with an attorney or tax professional to discuss their estate.  To say, “I’m going to let my children figure it out” is to fail to take responsibility for what is yours.  Do not fall prey to the lie that your children are the exception and that they would never argue or fight over your estate.  It’s your stuff and it’s your responsibility to go through your stuff and to decide what happens to it after you die.  In my experience, this is one of the most loving things you can do for your children.  This process is much easier if you will manage to let go of some things while you are still living.  If there are things that are meaningful to you and you want to pass them down, why not do that today?
  3. Have a living will that clearly expresses your wishes for the kind of medical treatment you will receive or reject and be clear about who will carry your wishes out.  This needs to be written down formally and it needs to be expressed verbally to your spouse and children.  Time and time again I have seen the pain of spouses and children who are forced to make end of life decisions without knowing or understanding the wishes of the person who is now unable to express their own wishes.  To neglect this is to burden your loved ones with a decision that they were not meant to have to make.  This  often becomes an even greater burden when all involved do not agree on what steps to take or not take (this happens far too often.)  Do not fall prey to the lie that your family is an exception and that this won’t happen to them.
  4. Gather all your important documents in one place so that your loved ones don’t spend their first few days and hours of grieving going on an Easter egg hunt for the important documents that they will need.  Make sure that someone you trust has access to this information.  This would include passwords to online accounts and social media.  It is highly inconvenient not to be able to get into someone’s Facebook account after they die.
  5. Tell your spouse that you want them to keep on living after you die.  I have told Susan over and over that if I die, I want her to marry again.  It will bring me no joy, no satisfaction, and it will not honor that life we have shared together for her to simply grieve me for the rest of her life.
  6. Plan your funeral.  What an amazingly beautiful blessing it is to work with a family whose loved one has taken care of all their funeral plans.  Rather than frantically scrambling around trying to pick out songs, location, pallbearers, caskets, funeral plots, write the obituary, locate numbers for people, and find money to pay for the thousands of dollars all this will cost, the family is allowed to grieve, to share stories of blessing, to comfort one another, and to receive the comfort of others.  Plans for your funeral would include:
    1. Which funeral home will you use?
    2. What casket will be used?
    3. Do you want flowers on your casket?  What kind?
    4. If you are being cremated, what are your wishes for your ashes?
    5. Which cemetery will you be buried in?
    6. What clothes do you wish to be buried in?
    7. Do you need pallbearers?  Who?  
    8. A written obituary (who knows you better than you!)
    9. Where do you want your funeral service to be held (church, funeral home, or graveside)?
    10. If you want there to be a bulletin, what do you want it to say?
    11. Do you want a funeral service and a graveside service.  Which of these do you want to occur first?  Do you want an open casket?
    12. Would you like a visitation with/without open casket on the evening before your service?
    13. What songs would you like?  Why have you chosen these songs?
    14. How do you want your funeral service to feel?  What is the message you want people to leave with?
    15. Who do you want to speak at your service?
    16. What Scripture would you like read?  Why?
    17. What will be the order of service?  What other specific requests do you have for your service?
    18. What is the most important thing that you want to make sure is said at your funeral or memorial service?
    19. How many death certificates will be needed to file with your insurance and others?
    20. Where would you like to publicize your death?  Who needs to be notified that you have died?
    21. Where would you like any memorials in your name to go?
    22. How much will all of this cost and how is it to be paid for?
    23. Have a I provided all relevant names and contact numbers (funeral home, pallbearers, florist, pastor, soloist, etc)

That’s a lot to work through isn’t it?  Imagine doing all this in the first few hours of losing the love of your life, having no sleep, your phone ringing off the hook, arranging to take off work, and stressing about money.  Somebody has to answer these questions.  It has been my experience that it is an extremely loving thing to do to take care of all these things for yourself before your passing.  The young are tempted to think that “I will take care of this when I am older”, but none of us get to number our days.  The time to begin this process is today.  In the midst of her pain and grief, I would not want to add any burden upon Susan.  If I pass away, there will be a folder with all this information waiting for her that begins with this note:

“Susan, I love you and I am sorry for the grief that you are experiencing today, but you and I know that death is not the end of our story.  It is for us the beginning of our greatest adventure.  Everything you need is in this folder.  Please call Casey.  He has a copy of everything here and he will walk with you over the next few days as you grieve, as you comfort the girls, and as you witness to our faith in a life that never ends.”

       7.  Do not put off for tomorrow what needs to be done today.  We are often tempted to believe that we always have tomorrow to express our love, to give or receive forgiveness, or to express our appreciation and thanks.  Is there something that you know you need to do or a relationship that you know needs some work that you have been putting off for tomorrow?  Why not today?

“Where, O death, is your victory?    Where, O death, is your sting?”The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  1 Corinthians 15:55-57

Death has been conquered in Christ.  You and I no longer need to be afraid to think about our passing from this life.  In fact, we now seek to make our passing a blessing to those we love and a testimony to our faith in a life that never ends.