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The Art of Dying

“For Christians in most times and places, death has been a routine part of life. But during the last century, Americans have embraced an unprecedented denial of death, and unprecedented evasion of death. In general, we have removed death from our homes. People no longer die there; corpses no longer repose there before burial. We no longer allow people to say that they are dying-rather, they are “battling” an illness. Far from encouraging the perilously ill to recognize the imminence of their death, we encourage the sick (and their doctors) to fight death-but not to prepare for it” (10). These words, from Lauren Winner’s foreword, lay the groundwork for this very important book, a book for which many of us in pastoral ministry have been eagerly waiting.

In his book, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come, Rob Moll, award-winning journalist and editor at large with Christianity Today, is concerned that our culture doesn’t know what to think about death. After interviewing families, doctors, and hospice workers he writes, “[It’s] clear that our paradoxical approach to death is largely due to the fact that we are strangers to death-despite its being ever present” (14). Therefore, most of us are at a complete loss when death touches us. The primary consequence, in Moll’s words, “We don’t know what to expect or how to prepare for our own death. And we’re often awkward at best when trying to comfort a friend in grief” (13).

Moll explains how we got to this point, “As the place of death moved to the hospital, people became less familiar with the sights and sounds of the very ill. Medical personnel took over the intimate care of the patient, often simply because their expertise was required. These changes allowed patients to survive-at least temporarily-diseases that would have killed them. But through this exchange, we forgot what death looks like, and we lost something” (16).

Moll’s first encounter with death came at age 27 when he and his wife visited his great aunt Eileen who was dying of cancer. He tells the story candidly and poignantly, admitting in retrospect, “Given the sacredness of such an event, I felt the need to offer more to assist my aunt. How should I care for a loved one on her deathbed? What do you say when no words can be sufficient? I had no idea” (25). In response to the above questions, Moll unfolds eleven chapters of insight into what it looks like to die a good death.

The second chapter is particularly important for pastors. It cites a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found that people of religious faith (95 percent of whom were Christians) were three times more likely to choose aggressive medical treatment at the end of their lives, even though they knew they were dying and the treatments were unlikely to lengthen their lives (32). One implication of this data is that church leaders are probably not doing all that we can to prepare our congregations for death, things like last words, reconciliation, repentance, and spiritual preparation. Our need for training in this area is profound.

Throughout the book Moll touches on bioethics, which has become an important part of the subject. Given limitations of space, the depth and scope of these treatments are sometimes less than what readers may want. A suggested reading list in this regard might have been helpful.

Another important theme concerns the time frame within which to address the issue of death. Preparation for a fruitful, Christ-honoring departure from this life accumulates gradually throughout years of walking with Christ. It is part of our worldview here and now, providing clarification on what is most sacred and meaningful. Moreover, responsibility for this pursuit is shared with others, carried out by one’s family and local church and eventually in partnership with the medical community.

Talking about death also extends to the period after a loved one has died. In whatever way one chooses to memorialize the deceased, either with somberness or celebration, it is critical that we gather to remember, eulogize, and learn from the experience. Moll writes, “Christians throughout history have attempted to practice their deaths in a way that reflects their faith. ‘The dying person in the Christian tradition is invited to immerse-as she or he did in baptism-a human story in a divine story, the Christian’s dying in the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection,’ says Donald Heinz” (67).

Chapter seven explores several existentially relevant questions surrounding the experience of death, questions that all of us face at some point or another, such as, “how do we honor someone in their last days,” “how do we care for them,” “how can we speak meaningfully to the terminally ill?” In response, Moll offers a simple suggestion: “Be present.” With pastoral sensitivity he encourages readers to extricate themselves from busy routines in order to give dying friends and loved ones the gift of personal presence (103–105).

In his chapter titled A Culture of Resurrection, Moll suggests that we need to change our mindset into a positive vision of how elderly and sick may serve the church (147–169). Full of practical gospel truth, this section connects the dots between the daily affairs of church ministry and the redemptive historical truths of God’s new creation. Moll concludes the section, “We prepare for death and we see the Christian life in practice by providing a means for the dying to continue their presence in the church. Not only does it offer an opportunity for the dying and elderly to continue to fulfill the ministry to which God has called them, but the rest of the congregation sees life lived and ended with hope and faithfulness” (169).

I expect that in years to come The Art of Dying will serve as a valuable resource for pastors and church leaders. Its staying power will come from its combination of theological depth, practical advice, and its timelessly relevant message-that while waiting for death’s final defeat, we may walk together in the life-giving power of the gospel.

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