(This post first appeared in LadderLife No. 5 February 2021 – Ladderlife is the magazine of the Heavy Metal Fresh Expression of Church ‘We Are Jacob’s Ladder’, Hugglescote)
In our daily lives we are bombarded with statistics – particularly in these crazy times of pandemic – hospitalisations, case numbers, R rates, excess deaths etc. However there is one statistic that has been called the Ultimate Statistic. It is simply this,
100% of people die.
One of the strangenesses of our contemporary culture is how we try so hard to ignore this statistic.
Earlier cultures – where the prevalence of disease, famine, and violence made death a much more frequent experience. When people had a life expectancy in the mid 30’s, when infant mortality levels were really high, throughout a person’s short life they were going to be confronted with death on a regular basis.
Now, at least in the developed world, the advances in our living conditions, our access to medicine, and the established rule of law drastically reducing violence, we live much longer – now approaching 90 years on average – which means that death comes to us as more of a surprise.
Everyone feels immortal until the moment they die.
A recent post found me musing on the sign of the skull and crossbones, this month I’m thinking about the subject of a happy death, you might be forgiven for thinking I’m in a bit of a gloomy place!
In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is important to think about death. Indeed, it has been said that;
You are not really ready to live, until you are ready to die.
Which maybe sounds crazy but expresses a great truth.
Surely all of us want to live well, to live a good life? I mean, we only get one go at this life thing, it would be a shame to waste it by not making the most of it. But how can we know if we are living well? How do we evaluate our life? Paradoxically, it is thinking about how our life will end that we gain insight into how we can live it well.
Helpfully, there is some good guidance from the saints of previous ages. Cardinal John Henry NEWMAN wrote a prayer about dying which included the following;
that … I may die as I desire to live, in Thy Church, in Thy faith, and in Thy love. Amen.
Another old prayer says;
Give us the grace to prepare for our last hour by a devout and holy life
Do you see the theme emerging? The point is being made that a good death is one that concludes a good life. In other words,
Those who live well, die well.
Those, whose life has been always directed towards God and towards good, will find that death comes gently, as a friend, as a completion.
Some Christian traditions has described death as being ‘promoted to glory’. The idea being that for the Christian death is an advancement, a promotion, not a disaster and not a ruination.
Those who have sought to know and love God more and more in their lives will find that death comes as the ultimate fulfilment of that desire – they get to enter into a quality of relationship with God that have always desired, striven for, but which they were unable to fully achieve in life.
In the Church of England Compline is an evening service that seeks to prepare us for the coming night. However, as with most liturgy, it is richer and deeper than that. As it looks to the coming night’s sleep, and seeks God’s blessing and protection in that period of bodily refreshment, there are also resonances of the final ‘sleep of death’. This is expressed in the opening prayer;
The Lord almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.
But what is a ’perfect end’?
Picturing a good death we might imagine ourselves surrounded by a loving family ‘old and full of years’. But what about those who die fighting against forces of oppressions, facing down drug barons, who are murdered by despotic rulers because they cried out for freedom? Aren’t those also ‘perfect ends?’
There is a lot of imagery in the Bible of the Christian life as a battle, a struggle, a conflict.
Those who ‘Fight the good fight of the faith.’ (1 Timothy 6:12, NIV), who battle to their dying breath are the ones who are promised eternal life as their reward;
Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Revelation 2 :10, NIV)
Which is expressed nicely in another prayer about death;
Lord Jesus, pour into us the spirit of Thy love, that in the hour of our death we may be worthy to vanquish the enemy and attain unto the heavenly crown: Who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.
So a happy death is also an accomplishment, a victory, an achievement.
Perhaps the most helpful reminder about dying is that as followers of Jesus we do not die alone.
St Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, seems to have been much older than his wife Mary and he disappears from the scene fairly quickly, certainly before Jesus begins his ministry.
So Joseph must have died while Jesus was a young man. So we can imagine the picture of Joseph on his deathbed with Mary and Jesus at his side.
Which has been seen as symbolic of the death of all those who follow Jesus. Mary, often called the Mother of the Church and Jesus our Saviour, Lord and friend will be at our side at the moment of our dying and bring us safely into the presence of God.
This association with St Joseph has led to him being the patron saint of a happy death.
A prayer that is probably 1,900 years old ends like this;
St. Joseph, patron of departing souls, pray for us. Amen.
So, a happy death? Yes, it is possible.
It is possible; if you live your life in the light of your death; if you set your aim towards good and towards God; if you fight and persevere in the good fight of the faith.
I wish you all ‘A Happy Death’.