14 Make a good death, and your destiny will be the best
Death is back. The increase brought by the COVID-19 pandemic has put death back in the headlines for us all. Far more painfully, the bereavements many have suffered have made death a personal reality in the lives of individuals and families.
Death never went away, of course, but people in Europe and North America particularly have been getting better and better at pretending it doesn’t really exist. Funerals are replaced by memorials: saying farewell to a person who has died is replaced by celebrating the life they lived. Both may be very good things, but they are not the same, and one is not a substitute for the other. The dealing with death is left to each individual and family, while the public event celebrates life.
What is a ‘good death’? For many people it’s almost impossible to think of those two words together, but all religious traditions have had their different ideas about what it means to die well – not glorifying death, nor hiding from it. In this shared tragedy, might we be able to find new ways of dying well? The first step would be to reverse the move towards the privatisation of dying (and grieving). I have been with many people at their deathbeds, and the most peaceful and least anxious have been the ones in which death’s coming is acknowledged, both by the families and the dying person.
I am convinced that it is more healthy for us as we deal with loss, death, bereavement that these realities are named for what they are. What we name and recognise is less scary than the lurking terror we can’t quite see but know is there: every horror movie bears witness to that. The work of grief is difficult enough as it is, but when we feel that we can’t acknowledge what’s really happening, the burden becomes greater, not less.