My father-in-law died two weeks ago. He was on hospice care. His pain was managed and his needs were met by gentle and compassionate providers. His wife, children and grandchildren, brothers and sister, all spent his last week with him. We prayed and sang. We said “good-bye.” From all accounts, it was a good death.
But I wonder. Is there really such thing as a good death?
In secular society, we talk about death being a part of life. We talk about birth and death, the beauty of the life cycle, compared to the beauty of the seasons in a year. We hum “The Circle of Life” and think about cute little lion cubs taking over their father’s throne. And we use all of our education and intellect to reason that death is just a part of life.
In religious circles, we talk about God and eternal life. We quote Paul who said “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” and we sometimes act like there is no reason to be sad at all.
Sometimes people are suffering and death is a merciful end.
Sometimes there is beauty and joy in the middle of the sadness of death — sitting on the living room floor surrounded by old pictures, meals with relatives and friends, together after many years, memories, stories, flowers.
But the goodness of death isn’t really about death, is it?
When there is goodness in death, the goodness is about life. Life. Not death.
The being together — that’s life, not death. The memories — life, not death. The food and the friends and the stories — all life, not death.
Even when death is a merciful end to suffering, the death itself is not really good. Sometimes death is certainly better than suffering, but if we could have what our hearts truly want, we would have healing. Life. Not death.
We’re longing for life. We’re searching for life. We’re clinging to life. We’re fighting for life. Not some religiously constructed view of an eternal mansion on a street of gold. And not just bare-bones physical life either. But true life. All the joy and sorrow and laughter and pain and noise and quiet and heat and cold and everything that makes us real. Life. True, full, abundant life.
When we speak of a good death, we are speaking of a death that is filled with life. Life in the face of death. Life breaking through even in the valley of the shadow of death.
John 1:4-5 says “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
In this mysterious, poetic verse, John is telling us the secret. Jesus is the one we are seeking. We may not even know it but as we search for life, as we cling to life, as we fight for life, as we long for life, we are searching for God. Because God is the author of Life. And the gospel writer tells us right at the beginning of the story that God through Jesus Christ is bringing Life to all people.
True life. Abundant life. Life that cannot be overcome by death. Life that never ends.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
Amy Bost Henegar Minister for Family Life and Spiritual Formation Manhattan Church of Christ New York, NY