I was preaching a few weeks ago on Jacob’s death and funeral in Genesis 49.
My message largely focused around the hopeful nature of his death and our hope of resurrection and the age to come. It got me thinking though about a ‘good death’.
It used to be that people talked about Christians as the people who died well. I can’t imagine that being the case now. We shut death away and try not to talk about it. If someone died well, we would rather not notice at all, thank you. Where the Victorians were obsessed with death and prudish about sex, we have gone entirely the opposite way.
There are movements, especially associated with what Tara Isabella Burton calls “techno-utopians”, who are trying to eliminate death itself. We should laugh this off as patently absurd, and yet we live in a world where this sort of thinking sounds increasingly believable. Why wouldn’t we want that?
The idea that any death could be good is beyond us. We Christians are the people who teach that death is cruel, unnatural, and profoundly wrong. Paradoxically we’re also the people who need to talk about dying well.
There are some medical definitions of a good death, and they essentially amount to it being pain free. I get this, I really do. I don’t want to experience pain, ever. Pain is bad, so a good death would have no pain. In principle I don’t disagree, but I do worry if that’s our definition of a dying well. We live in a comfort loving society. The Bible teaches us that enduring through suffering and difficulty brings us to glory and is ultimately good for us, producing good character (think of Romans 5 for example). This is anathema to the culture we live in, and therefore to many of us.
Being pain free by the wonder of modern medicine is good, but there are higher goods.
What would a good death look like? Learning from Jacob’s death I would like to suggest three elements that need to be part of it and are probably far from most of our thinking
Jacob repented of his actions in showing partiality to Rachel that tore the family asunder and provided the narrative impetus for much of the last 20 chapters. We see this in his insistence that he be buried with Leah and not Rachel.
Jacob had repented, not least because he had seen the beloved son resurrected, and he got to briefly live in the fruit of that.
A good death involves repentance. It’s clean before the Lord, trusting Christ to deal with all our sin. And, ideally, there has been time to enjoy the rich fruit of repentance in reconciliation where possible. That’s a good death, ready to face judgement.
Jacob spent the last couple of chapters blessing all his sons. These are great and beautiful chapters of huge import for the story that call ahead to events to come. He was able to freely give of himself to his family.
I would contend that a good death is less about family’s presence, though that is definitely a good thing, but the opportunity to bless them with wisdom and prayer. This doesn’t have to be immediately prior to death, nor does it entail a narrow, western, nuclear view of family. The local church is our family.
A life lived freely giving away wisdom, blessing and the impartation of the Spirit is one that prepares for a good death. Everything that was yours in the Lord you’ve given away, and surprisingly found that it rebounded tenfold in further wisdom and blessing to give away.
Jacob is insistent that they journey back to Canaan, along the route of the Exodus, to bury his body in Abraham’s tomb. He is hopeful that his family will return to the land to inherit the promises God has given them.
We too should die with hope, believing with George Herbert that, ‘Death used to be an executioner, but the gospel has made him just a gardener.’ We die with hope and are planted in the ground as seeds to await our resurrection.
A good death?
It used to be common to remember death “memento mori” as the saying goes. For the Romans this meant “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,” (Ecclesiastes 8), for the Christians who followed them it meant quite the opposite. It used to be normal to be encouraged to consider your death. To remember with the story that St Tertullian tells in his Apology that when conquering Roman emperors were thrown a triumph and hailed as a god, there would be a man to stand behind them and tell them that they should “look after you [i.e.to your death] and remember you are a man.”
Thoughts of a good death are far from most of us, me included. I’m a relatively young man at 34. I don’t have many thoughts of death. Now, therefore, is the time to prepare for it. Let us do so in hope.
And in the end it will be
That death has become a door
For we will sail ‘cross the sea
And find hope on a far shore