Excellent books have been written about the meaning, purpose, and practice—the theology—of a Christian funeral. These books help pastors think carefully about what to say to those who have gathered to mourn the death of a loved one. But few of those gathered for a funeral are facing the imminent end of their own earthly existence. For pastors the questions “What do I say to those who are in the final months, weeks, and days of their lives? What do I say about life beyond the grave to people who are about to die?” are as important as knowing what to say at a funeral. We posed these questions to David J. Wood, a seasoned pastor who currently serves as senior minister of Glencoe Union Church in Glencoe, Illinois.
This article was first published in the Spring 2014 issue of Bearings, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
What do I say to the dying? My first response to this very difficult question is, it depends. Death, while universal, is exceedingly particular, not only given the uniqueness of each person, but also given very particular contexts and sets of conditions. Physical conditions vary. So do the kind and quality of the relationships that characterize the person I’m talking to. The spiritual states of people facing death are as unique as their fingerprints. These are only a few of the conditions that make the situation so complex. This complexity makes it far easier for me to tell you what I said to particular people as they were dying than it is to generalize and report what I say to everyone who is dying.
At the same time, as a Christian pastor, I come with a set of convictions that do not depend upon individual circumstance. Even that statement strikes me as probably more confident than warranted by my persuasions. Just so you don’t misunderstand, the problem is death, not my wobbly convictions, or so I tell myself.
I admit freely that I know much less now than I used to. As a consequence I probably say much less at the bedside of the dying than I used to. In my early days of ministry I was far less reflective, and far more receptive to an authoritative script that had been informally passed on to me by the evangelical culture of my upbringing. Heaven awaits us all. Death transmits us to an actual place in which abides a Presence—God—and which is populated by all those who have gone before. This “all” was made up of all those who had named, explicitly and faithfully, the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. It all seemed straightforward and uncomplicated.
The resurrection of Jesus remains a central part of my confession of faith, in part because I cannot grasp Christianity’s expansiveness or durability without it. We pastors and biblical scholars can’t explain the resurrection, but it is extremely difficult to account for Christianity as a historical, culture-shaping phenomenon without it. The Christian claim of death as enemy and the resurrection of Jesus as victory does not resolve the mystery of death. Rather, it wraps it in an even deeper mystery.
As the one standing at a bedside, the closer I am to the point of someone’s actual death, the more in the dark I feel—the more ignorant, the less authoritative. I begin to realize that the one who is dying is leading the way. I am not the confident pastor out in front with my words of comfort and encouragement. Even more, as that liminal space between being alive and being dead approaches, I become an outsider. I am being left behind in the minority we call the living. That’s why I’m uncomfortable with any talk that makes it sound as if I know exactly what the dying person is actually experiencing.
As bizarre as it might sound, I remember being dismayed by the deep level of grief folks displayed at the funerals of loved ones whom I, and others, had judged to be clearly within the fold of the faithful. For those who did not fit into that category there was hell. Hell was not discussed often and I was never so bold as to assign anyone to the abyss of absolute abandonment or a more active torture, depending on your construal. But there was an understanding, largely unspoken, that such a possibility was real for all those beyond the fold.
That was then. Now, death looms so much larger and possesses a much greater mystery for me. It’s more like a brick wall than a tunnel leading to light. On the face of it, conclusive. My varied experiences of death—from holding someone’s hand as she died, to standing around the bed with a family as their loved one died, to watching my own mother die, to praying with a semi-conscious person who died minutes after I left the room—have only deepened my sense of mystery. No two situations are alike, though the ending is always the same. What to say in a situation that’s at once profoundly personal and inescapably universal?
I am an outsider when it comes to death and dying. Does dying feel like going over a cliff? Does it feel like everything that is visible in the eye of the mind or of the body is fading away into darkness, as if one were being sucked into a black hole that does not reflect light or life but simply evacuates it? Is it more like fighting off sleep, aware that giving way will mean never again waking to oneself or anyone else? Does it offer some sense of light, of life, of possibility that makes the ending of one’s earthly existence seem increasingly appealing? Do the unknowable answers to such questions depend in any way on the physical, emotional, or spiritual condition of the person dying?
As an outsider I also ask what it can mean for someone to be “ready to die.” It’s not unusual to hear talk about whether or not the one who is at death’s door is “ready to go.” But who could possibly know when someone else is ready to die?
It’s common for loved ones surrounding the dying to say, “It’s ok to go now.” According to this line of thought, some folks may prolong the process of dying because they feel obligated to the living to stay alive. If this is so, the primary role of the living may not be to express grief at the pending loss of the loved one, but to suspend grief (even mask it) for the sake of the one dying. But rarely, if ever, is releasing a person to death a response to communication from the person who is actually dying. Typically, when these words are said to one who is dying, the dying person is beyond the ability to speak. I have often wondered if the dying experience those words less as comfort and assurance and more as something akin to abandonment in their darkest hour. The fact is, we don’t know. In effect, such encouragement places the living in the role of coaches to the dying, acting as if we knew what we were talking about. I wonder if we don’t say these words more for our own sake than for the sake of the one who is dying.
Because I have said so much about particularity and mystery and ignorance, you might conclude that I think it’s best to say nothing to the dying. Indeed I do think there’s some wisdom in that inclination. But, there are definitely words to be spoken, many of which require enactment as much as, if not more than, speech.
The Bible provides no death scenes that give us a script to follow. Narratives of death are not uncommon, but they are not deathbed scenes that give us variations of last words spoken to or by the dying—except for one: Jesus’ “seven last words” from the cross. These words speak of the experience of utter spiritual and relational forsakenness (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”), physical suffering (“I thirst”), trust (“Into your hands I commend myself”), compassion for the living (“Woman, behold your son”), resolution (“It is finished”), reconciliation (“Father, forgive them . . .”), and hope (“This day, you shall be with me in paradise”). Not a bad litany of prayers, actions, and words to guide the dying, or better, to instruct us who seek to accompany the dying as they approach death.
But as for words spoken to, as opposed to by, the dying, we have no biblical script to follow. What we do have are abundant words about God’s relation to the dying and the dead. Those words are perhaps the most important any of us can speak to someone who is dying. Even though we may inhabit these words, they are not our own. Their authority does not depend on our firsthand knowledge of what the dying are experiencing. These are words that do not so much speak of the experience of the dying as they speak into their experience. They are words more about God than about death or dying:
From Psalm 139,
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
Or this from the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans:
For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
These are but two of the texts I would draw upon. Of course, biblical words are not the only words to be spoken. Depending on the situation, there are many other words—pastoral words—that will be spoken in conversation and in prayer. But there is no script other than the one that arises in the midst of the Presence and the presence of one to the other.
There are also actions to be performed that we trust communicate beyond words: holding a hand, signing a cross on a forehead, kissing a cheek, or anointing a head with oil. Knowing if, when, and how to enact such rituals is discerned in the moment. So much depends on being present in and to the moment and becoming an instrument of the Presence that, by faith, we know to be nearer to any of us than we are to ourselves, to paraphrase Meister Eckhardt. Whenever I enter the room of a sick or dying person, I seek first to remember that I am not introducing a Presence: I am joining the Presence already there. It is the Presence that will remain even when mine is gone and, most important of all, will be Present when death has come.