On the Significance of a Good Death

Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven. (Preface I for the Dead from The Roman Missal)

Over the last week, I have had the privilege of attending and being involved in the funeral rites of two good men. The impact of their funeral rites will be significant, I suspect, for all those who attended them, but I have been moved to reflect on how these two good men managed to witness – to me at least – the significance of dying well.

The first of these occasions was the funeral of Paul, who happened to be a brother priest. Paul had been diagnosed with cancer towards the end of 2020, a form of cancer that was particularly aggressive. Paul undertook the kind of aggressive treatment that such cancer required and did so with a great deal of serenity and peacefulness, knowing, I suspect, that the chances of reversing the course of the cancer were relatively slim. Paul did not give up on the treatment across the course of his cancer’s short progress, nor did he become despondent about the genuine possibility of death. To the very last, Paul was a man who witnessed the power of embracing a good death as a means of witnessing to others what he innately believed: that death is not the end.

The second funeral was that of John, a parishioner who had become a good friend. John, too, had been diagnosed with cancer, though his diagnosis stretches back a few years. Like Paul, John undertook the treatments recommended by those who were treating him and lived a good life to the very end, witnessing powerfully to the power of life and the reality of death. I suspect that John, being a physician who specialised in palliative care, had an advantage in understanding the reality of both life and death. However, his true gift to those who saw how John lived and died is found in the serenity and peacefulness that he found at the junction between life and death because of his knowledge God knew him.

Both Paul and John, each in their own way, have provided a powerful witness to me (and hopefully others) about the significance of both living and dying well. Certainly, their lives have dramatically affected those who knew them, personally and professionally, and will leave an indelible mark on the lives of many people.

Yet, I cannot help but reflect on the significance, witness, and example of Paul and John’s death and how their dying and embracing the reality of death will have on those who knew them, again both personally and professionally. There was something profound in the serenity and peacefulness that both John and Paul exhibited, something that was not about projecting an image or brave facade but something inherent to their very being.

All too often, our contemporary society tries to mask the reality of death, using euphemisms that are ‘sterile’ to describe a fundamental aspect of all human life. There remain those who see death as a failure, particularly in the face of any medical conditions, with patients ‘losing their battle’ or ‘succumbing’ to their medical situation. All of which reminds me that there is still a fear of death prevalent within our society. The reality of death as part of our human condition is to be avoided whenever and however possible. I am reminded of this every time I have the honour to preside over the funeral rites of parishioners and strangers.

The reality of death, however, does not mean we ignore advances in medical treatment or technology. Our intellects are God-given, and we are called to use them and embrace their fruits whenever and wherever possible. Yet death cannot be beaten or denied either, and eventually – at some unknown point for most people – death will come to us.

And when we accept the inevitability of death as the natural path humans are called to tread, the manner of our lives and how our lives are lived will alter radically. And that, for me at least, is exactly what the death of Paul and John has reminded me of.

Both John and Paul wanted so much to live because of the value of life as God-given they innately knew and recognised. However, both Paul and John also knew – again innately – that death was a part of life, a part of life that we cannot ignore, and a part of life that was as natural as the act of drawing breath. I doubt either Paul or John wanted to live forever; neither did they want death to come sooner than it should. In both life and death, John and Paul honoured the gift they were given, a gift of both life and death.