Dying Well

Dying Well

I lived for thousands and thousands of years as a mineral,

And then died and became a plant.

And I lived for thousands and thousands of years as a plant,

And then died and became an animal.

And I lived for thousands and thousands of years as an animal,

And then died and became a human being.

Tell me, what have I ever lost by dying?


In an article published earlier this year, United Methodist pastor Michael Beck wrote, “When people die well, it’s a sacred moment of beauty, goodness and truth.”[2] He speaks from his experiences of being at the bedsides of people who died well. He also experienced being at the bedsides of those who did not die so well. He writes, “When people die struggling, disillusioned and unprepared, accompanying them is hard.”[3] He continues, “Often people who die well right all the wrongs in the final season of their life. They make amends for real or even perceived harms. People who die well give themselves awayDying well is a generative form of self-donation[4](emphasis added). Beck’s article is actually directed at the dying of the United Methodist (and other) churches, but the observations are drawn from individuals. How we live and how we prepare to die greatly influences the manner in which we die. I would add my belief that the manner in which we die greatly influences the manner in which we experience at least our initial encounter with the afterlife.

Most of us spend the first half of our lives accumulating the stuff we feel we need to build the sort of adult life we desire – a home, car, profession, furniture, relationships, guitar(s), etc. As we enter the latter part of our lives, many of our possessions become less useful and can become a burden. Many people begin giving stuff away as they age, not just as an act of generosity, but as a way to unburden themselves. This is implied in Beck’s statement, “People who die well give themselves away,” but the statement clearly goes beyond giving our unnecessary stuff away. His use of the term self-donation goes beyond our material stuff to include everything we have become attached to over the course of our lives, physically and emotionally. This may not include the relationships and causes we hold dear, but it certainly includes loosening the tight grasp with which we tend to hold them. Dying well involves releasing everything and everyone that will not accompany us in our physical death, which is nearly everything we identify with during our time on earth. It does not mean loving less, only clutching less. To the extent that we are able to give ourselves away, to that same extent will we be able to release our hold on our earthly existence and pass peacefully and with equanimity and readiness into whatever is next. That is what it means to die well.

There is an image I have seen on greeting cards and in humorous anecdotes about living life in a way that there is nothing remaining when we breathe our last. I accompanied my daughter to buy a car recently. Because we intended to trade her old car in, she asked if she should fill the gas tank before our trip to the dealership. I told her that no, the (tongue-in-cheek) ideal would be to roll onto the car lot on fumes. This is the spirit of dying well, that we organize our ultimate decline in such a way that there is nothing left at the end. Everything we had been given throughout our lives has either been used up or given away. This applies to emotional and relational as well as our physical and financial possessions. There is a story of the funeral of a rich businessman where one person asked another, “I wonder how much he left behind.” The other person replied, “He left all of it!”

The 13th Century Sufi mystic, Rumi, posed the question, “What have I ever lost by dying?” In death, despite appearances, we lose nothing, including whatever we desperately try to hold onto in life. Everything important and everything eternal goes with us. Everything else stays behind. To the extent that we give it away prior to our passing, we receive the joy of knowing something that was once important to us can now be important to someone else. In that sense our stuff attains its own immortality as we journey into ours.

This is the 57th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

Taizé to Go, a free worship experience, is available at https://youtu.be/sUC7gq9Op2Y

[1] Rumi, “Tell Me, What Have I Lost?” from The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, trans. Robert Bly (Harper Perennial: 2005), 339.

[2] Michael Adam Beck, Dying Well: A Good Death and the Self-Donation of the People Called United Methodists. www.ministrymatters.com/all/author/michael_beck. Published March 4, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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