How to Have a Good Death
A Sermon by Rev. Rich Tafel
June 20, 2021
I want to talk about a topic each one of us will personally face ourselves that our culture teaches us to avoid at all costs. I want to talk about death today.
What can we do to have a good death? As the technicians were helping me set up Today, I told him the title of my sermon, and he asked, “Can anyone have a good death?” I’m here to say yes.
I’m glad Annabel suggested this topic. It fits in nicely Today following our memorial service for Helen Today. I will offer six strategies we can use to prepare for our excellent death and how we can minister to those in our own lives when they face death.
End the Silence
My first strategy toward a good death is that we end our fear of talking about it. We must end the silence around death.
We are taught not to discuss it.
If you bring up the topic of death, your death, or that of a loved one, you’ll often be admonished by the person listening, “Don’t talk about that.” There’s almost a superstitious belief that if we talk about this, we cause it. This childlike superstition ends many vital conversations.
Today, in our secular culture, death came to be equated with a failure of our medical system. Heaven, it taught, was simply a myth created by pre-modern cultures to soothe humans from living in constant fear.
What this modern culture created, without a belief in spirit and the afterlife, was a new death culture the pretends we won’t die so much so that when a person dies, which everyone does, it almost surprises and shocks us. Instead of death being the natural evolution of our life, it is seen as a stunning shock.
Of course, by talking about death, we don’t invite it or bring it about. These are the superstitions. Next time someone tells you not to speak about death because it is sad or asks death, seek to reframe the conversation, and keep it going.
To have a great death, we can encourage conversations with trusted friends. Initiate those conversations. Annabel engaged Helen in some powerful and meaningful discussions. She was happy to have those discussions and hoped her death could be a teaching moment. I’d say she got that wish.
As a pastor, I find that usually, people facing death do want to talk about it. But often, caregivers and family steer the conversation away from this important topic because of their discomfort. Getting comfortable talking about death will make you better support others and will help you with your death.
I encourage you to take the courageous step of ending the silence and promoting the conversation about death as we are doing today.
Invest in the community now
The second strategy is investing in your community now.
There’s a good chance we won’t get to make many decisions at our death. We’ll need loved ones around us who will look after our best interests. We come into this world naked, helpless, and depending on the kindness of others. We also leave this world in the same way. This loss of control frightens us. Thinking ahead of who your team will be and sharing with them your wishes is one giant step we can all take.
As we get pulled into our silos of individualism and loneliness is on the rise, we must redouble learning how to engage in a community that is not all about us. Our church can plan an important role here.
Again, I think of Helen. She invested in people. She instilled in this church community and us.
That love came back to her when she needed it. Who will you invest your time with? Who will be your advocates and champions?
Our medical system requires us to have advocates.
In Helen’s case, she needed advocates at the hospital; she began rejecting treatments that perpetuated the illusion that she wasn’t dying. In one situation, she refused a specific, clearly unnecessary test. The young medical staffer looked at me frustrated, saying, “Well, that’s what we’re supposed to do. I don’t know what to say. We’re supposed to do it.” The young medical staffer was clearly on a checklist given by a superior and was worried to report they’d failed. They looked at me, and I said, “It’s okay. She has the right to turn down treatment. It’s not your fault.”
The modern medical system realizes that there are better ways to die than being poked, prodded, and tested. The rise of the hospice movement and the ability to decline medical treatment represents movement in the right direction.
Be champions and advocates for others in their death and seek those who will be there for you. We will need our community to be around us. We need to be that community for others. Invest in the community.
Get Your House in Order
Practically get your items in order. If we want to have a good death, we need to plan for the events where your advocates can support you. I’ve been with many people at end who hold on in pain longer than they should because they are worried that their business is not done and there are still things left undone.
Begin by talking about what you want to happen as you lose your decision-making and plans for a funeral. Legally, it means creating a power of attorney, medical power of attorney, and a will for those who love you and will need to make decisions for you. Create a document with passwords to guide those who come after you. We need to think of who our team or advocate for us will be when we cannot.
We often don’t write wills or share our plans because of the silence and superstition around death. I hope our church can become a place where members can archive their plans in a safe space.
Embrace the Sadness as a Sign of Love
Death is sad, and when we grieve, we show our love.
To reduce sadness, ministers often tell people that there’s no reason to be sad because the person dying or our friend who has died is in heaven. There is genuine sadness in death. The lowest part of helping young men in their prime transition from this world was alleviating the shame they felt from family and the culture for getting AIDS.
The reality of death often comes to us when all our slow step-by-step loss. In my conversations with Helen, there was that moment. She had been asking me to get her driver’s license renewed. One visit she said, “Hold off on getting the license renewed.” The look in her eyes saying this mundane of a driver’s license revealed she’d come to terms with the reality of her eminent death. It led to a time of mourning.
Death is sad and there is a loss. We can grieve and help those passing make decisions to die with dignity.
We all fear pain. I do wonder if the pain we often feel before death might serve the purpose of preparing our release. I remember Helen saying, “I’m tired and in pain. My soul is ready.”
As Jesus says in Today’s gospel the pain of childbirth gives way to joy. Swedenborg says that people who suffered on this sphere cannot even remember it as they are welcomed with a profound loving community. The description he offers of the transition to heave is so beautiful and caring that we can’t imagine it.
The transition while frightening and painful on our side becomes a loving and welcoming experience beyond human description. The sadness and grief of those of us left behind is real and should not be swept under a rug, but it should be processed. There has been a loss. That loss is real. It is good to mourn and powerful to have religious services to help us grieve.
Deepen your faith now
Which leads to the next strategy, deepen your faith now. As followers of Jesus, we are very blessed to given clear promises. Jesus teaches that to follow in this path, we must die to ourselves. He teaches that we are born first from our mother and then born in this world through spiritual understanding. Our death is also another birth into our purely spiritual experience leaving behind our bodies. Only after a grain of wheat dies in the ground can new life be created. Only after we let go of this physical body our spiritual essence moves to the next level of existence in what we call heaven.
Many of those around him saw Jesus as the type of this world ruler who would make everything right here and now. He taught that this life is more of the school and, at times, a crucible through which we have a chance to grow and learn and ultimately graduated into our eternal spiritual life. His resurrection was a spiritual teaching so we could see that life continues after physical death.
In our church tradition, we are blessed with greater detailed insights than almost all other faith traditions. We are taught that heaven and hell are spiritual places with spiritual communities that we choose to live in by the choices we make here on earth. As we are living our physical life our spirit is connecting with angels and guides always seeking to help us grow in a deeper level of happiness.
In this description death is liberation from this existence as we transition to our eternal life. While we are here, we need to focus on our energy to make this world more heaven on earth. This requires we run against the grain of the culture that keeps us focused on paying the bills, achieving status, and dealing with daily temptations. We live knowing we will eventually transition out of this place with the hope that we did some good while we are here.
Since Swedenborg wrote those details of what happens when we die, two centuries later, a whole new science of Near-Death Experiences has emerged where thousands of people explain what happened when they briefly experienced death. What they describe is exactly aligned to Swedenborg’s description and pioneering authors like Dr. Raymond Moody and Elizabeth Kubler Roth refer to Swedenborg’s descriptions in their own writings.
In this view, how we die will be no different than how we live. If you want to have a good and peaceful death, live a good and peaceful life.
6. Plan Today with the End in Mind
To have a great death, we need to do as Stephen Covey said, “Plan with the end in mind.” How do you want to leave this planet? Begin planning for it now.
Writing out your own funeral is a powerful tool for changing your life Today. What do you need to change Today so you can live a truly meaningful life and leave this earth in peace?
The decisions you make now will help you have a good death. I know people who decided to live as though it were their last year.
There’s no reason to spend too much time trying to imagine your death, because there’s nothing you can do to control for the exact circumstanced. What you can control is who your soul has become when the time comes.
I challenge you to live a life without regrets. Create your bucket list.
I remember with my AIDS buddy facing his imminent death from AIDS. Together we created a bucket list, and the top of his list was driving out to a beach on the north shore of Massachusetts. I remember driving him up, shopping, getting ice cream and check out bookstores.
What’s on you bucket list? Tell someone you love and ask them the help you live it out so you can live without regret.
These are my six strategies to plan a good death. I’m sure you have others to share, and I look forward to hearing them.
How can we have a good death? Here are my ideas:
End the Silence Now
Invest in community Now
Get Your House in Order Now
Embrace the Sadness in the Loss at Death as Sign of Love Today
Deepen your faith Now
Plan Today with the End in Mind Now
We don’t get to choose how we will die Most of us want to die at home in their bed sleeping, but only 10% of people die in this manner. Though we cannot control the time, the place, or the state of our body when we die, we can live a life built in love of others that will build a reservoir of faith and courage as we make the transition.
To have a great death, have a good life.
Let’s commit Today to live a life worth living, to have an impact, to make a difference and when the time comes for us to transition, we will be at peace when the Lord welcomes us saying to us,
“Well done, thou good and faithful steward.”