Have you ever taken time to contemplate your death? Robert Fulghum, in his book, From Beginning to End, talks about how, from time to time, he pays his respects to his own final resting place. One night he even took a blanket up to the cemetery and lay on his grave in a “man-in-a-coffin” position. He closed his eyes and contemplated dying. It has become a sacred practice for him. He said, “Visiting my grave has the reliable capacity to untwist the snarls in my mind and soul, especially when I get angry about small things or lose track of what’s important. On one visit, I realized that if I died that day and my wife were to put an honest epitaph on my headstone, it would say, ‘Here lies a jackass – too pissed off to live long.’ How I’d hate to die mad.”
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If you knew tonight were your last night on earth, what would you do? I think (or at least I hope) most of us would gather family and close friends around us, express our love and appreciation for them and for the times we’ve shared, ask forgiveness for mistakes or words we regret, and try to leave in a manner that is loving and healing.
Over the years I’ve seen a lot of people die, and I’ve been part of the family process of planning more than 80 funerals. This may sound odd, but I believe there is a way to die that is healthier and more healing than others.
Our death is the last lesson we have to offer the world.
What I’m about to say is essentially true about life in general, but I think it is especially true when the end of our life is drawing close. We can think of it this way, we all have one bucket of energy to spend each day. Some people, when in the process of dying, spend all their energy denying their dying, and fighting for survival, so much so that they never take the time to do all those things we just listed as important. I think there is a superstitious sort of feeling that “if I talk about dying then I’m going to die, and if I don’t talk about it, then I still have a chance.” Those folks tend to stay on the surface and don’t share their deeper thoughts, hopes, dreams, sadness, and love with the ones surrounding them. Basically, that shuts everyone else out, because then they can’t share what they are feeling and experiencing either.
On the other hand, those people I’ve seen “die well” have opened their hearts to those around them. There may be fear, but there is also acceptance, and they choose to spend their “bucket of energy “ in loving, healing ways. They talk about what is happening with them and how they are feeling, they show care and concern for those they love, they talk about death and what they are thinking and feeling about it. They give others permission to feel and to be close instead of shutting them out or holding them at arm’s length. They give love through being open and vulnerable.
Jesus taught the world an amazing lesson through his dying process.
At the end of his life, Jesus took his one bucket of energy and chose not to spend it trying to stay alive by fighting, running or denouncing what he’d taught and lived. His death was consistent with his life. He maintained his integrity by continuing to offer his heart, his love, his forgiveness, and his hope.
Jesus isn’t pictured as grasping at life or seeking to extend it any longer. Instead, even as his life is draining out of him he is still portrayed as giving life and love to others. In the gospel of Matthew, he offered forgiveness to the soldiers, and hope to the penitent thief. In the gospel of John, Jesus is pictured as giving comfort to his mother.
It doesn’t really matter if these events really happened or not. They are part of the corporate memory of a life that understood love and compassion as the highest value – higher than mere physical survival.
As John Shelby Spong said, “Jesus was bearing witness to a life power present in him that death could not overcome.”
Jesus did not cling to his life, because he was not afraid of death. He did not cling to his life, because he experienced oneness with the Divine and knew that the death of his body would not take that away. He was free to be fully himself – loving and healing the world – and to give his life instead of running or fighting, because he had no fear and so death had no hold over him.
This is what people saw in Jesus.
Centuries of people have grieved the death of an innocent, beautiful life. But we remember the example he gave us of how to live well and die well. We remember a fearless love. A man who consistently loved throughout his life and loved until the end.