Crisis at the End of Life
Part of our witness to the world revolves around how we approach and experience death.
In her book, Call to Commitment, Elizabeth O’Connor tells the story of the beginning of the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. The founding pastor, Gordon Cosby, received a vision for the church as an Army chaplain during World War II. What Cosby observed was “Christian” soldiers who were no more ready to face death than their non-Christian counterparts. When all of the structures of society were gone, their lives did not hold together because internally they were not held together.
Baptists have historically envisioned the church as the visible gathering of disciplined Christians. Out of the quest to establish this kind of church, Baptists have attempted to recover New Testament images concerning how believers are to live before a watching world. Part of our witness to the world revolves around how we approach and experience death.
In facing end-of-life crises, we are blessed with the stories of Christians who faced the threat of death with courage and resolve. Numbered among these “saints” are brave Christians like Thomas Helwys, John Bunyan, Obadiah Holmes, Adoniram Judson and Lottie Moon. Countless missionaries who served and died in religiously intolerant nations can be counted along with more recognizable names. Another important resource for facing death is the Bible. In Scripture we find several pictures of the Christian life that serve us both in living and in dying.
Stewards of the Master
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus told the parable of the steward who was given responsibility for the goods of the household. In the story the master charges the steward to be faithful, reminding the steward that the master will return and ask for an account of the steward’s activities. The story suggests that in facing death, we should be good stewards of all our resources.
Not all Christians can expect to leave our families fortunes, but we can take steps to insure that our families will not suffer unnecessary grief additional to their loss of a loved one. To be a good stewards, we should seriously consider the following:
- Advance Directives: Living Wills and Durable Powers of Attorney for Health Care. These documents enable physicians and family members to know patients’ desires regarding procedures that should be taken in the event that they can no longer make personal health care decisions. Living wills are usually standard documents that state the patient’s desire not to be resuscitated and not to have heroic measures performed to prolong life in the face of imminent and/or certain death. Living wills may be obtained from hospitals or health care agencies, but may be modified to reflect very specific directives. For example, a patient may direct that some measures be taken in certain circumstances but not in others.With or without a living will a person may execute a durable power of attorney for health care. This document enables someone of the patient’s choosing to make health care decisions in the event of the patient’s incapacitation. This power does not extend beyond the patient’s death and terminates if the patient regains the ability to make decisions.
- Powers of Attorney: These documents allow someone of the patient’s choosing to carry out business transactions without the patient’s explicit permission. Should a patient become incapacitated, this person may carry out legal and financial transactions in the patient’s stead. This document also does not hold force beyond the patient’s death.
- Pre-Planned Funerals: Most funeral homes have professional planners on staff who can facilitate arrangements for the actual service, as well as details relating to burial or cremation. Many funeral homes have plans that may be paid in full prior to death, sometimes at considerable savings.
- Life Insurance: The family should know what policies are in force and where insurance documents are kept. Full awareness of benefits will assist the family in making funeral plans.
- Wills: While many states have provisions for those who die without leaving wills, most of these default provisions are less than ideal. A properly prepared will allows the deceased family and the state to know specific wishes regarding the disposition of personal property. Wills help families avoid unnecessary disagreements and provide the opportunity to leave gifts for religious and other charitable organizations. Like insurance documents, the family should know where the will is kept. If the will is several years old, it may be necessary to consult a lawyer in order to determine its validity according to current state law.
- Memorials: Often friends and family wish to give gifts instead of or in addition to flowers. Expressing intentions regarding these gifts will free the family from making additional decisions. Memorials provide substantial income for many charitable organizations.
- Legal Documentation: Besides wills and insurance policies, other legal documents should be accessible to family members.
The Ministry of Reconciliation
Part of our calling as followers of Christ is to be ministers of reconciliation and ambassadors for Christ (II Corinthians 5:18-20). We are commissioned to be reconciled with God, to be reconciled with others and to reconcile people with each other. These tasks seem formidable, but the gospel tells us that Christ has already completed the work of reconciliation in his life, death, and resurrection.
As death approaches, Christians should seize the opportunity to be reconciled to friends and family. When the exigencies of life become trivial in the light of death’s imminence, old wounds can be healed. Christians may also attempt to remedy injuries between other persons. And Christians can appeal to their friends and family to be reconciled to God. Most importantly, Christians should contemplate our own relationships with God and be open to God’s conciliatory and redemptive presence. As part of the Body of Christ, we do not have to face these tasks alone. Other believers are crucially important during the crises of life and especially during the crises of death. We should call on other believers for mutual encouragement and confession. While our whole lives should be filled with labors of reconciliation, death reminds us that our opportunities are limited and finite.
Servants Being Served
Jesus called his disciples to be servants (Mark 9:35), and he also taught them the importance of being served (John 13:6-9). To be served and to serve both require humility. Nowhere is this message symbolized more vividly than when Baptists share in the Lord’s Supper. The pastor serves the congregation, but the pastor is also served by the congregation.
The dying Christian learns to be served in humility, but how can dying Christians possibly be servants? A central focus of the Christian life is to consider others before we consider ourselves. Two of the best ways for Christians approaching death to serve our families is to consider their needs as we seek the best method of care for ourselves and to consult our families regarding funeral plans. Three major considerations involve finances, physical and emotional resources, and dignity.
Financial concerns weigh heavily on every family as death approaches. These concerns are manifest in the following issues: whether or not to continue aggressive treatment for illness or injury; whether or not to remain at home or go to a skilled facility; and how much money to spend on a funeral. As we consider future family care and funeral plans, we must also contemplate how much income will be available.
Christians must also consider the physical and emotional resources of their families. Some families can provide certain kinds of care for a dying person which other families cannot provide. For most terminal patients, remaining at home until death is a real possibility through hospice or home health care. This care usually requires a full-time caregiver, usually a family member, friend or paid attendant. Not everyone will have family members or friends who have the physical and emotional resources to care and cope throughout the dying process.
Christians must also consider the dignity of their family members, particularly regarding funeral plans. Sometimes a nominal cost–savings is not worth the potential discomfort to the family. In one family, for example, the wife told her husband that she could not bear the thought of his body being cremated. Despite her protests, the husband insisted on cremation to save money. Several years later, she lives with hurt and anger caused by her husband’s decision.
The Word Made Flesh
The Gospel of John begins by telling us about “the word made flesh” (1:14). Christians proclaim God became truly human in Jesus Christ. Never is this humanity more evident than when Jesus was facing His own death. Jesus was honest about his anguish and bodily needs. From his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane to his cry of thirst on the cross, Jesus never tried to mask the intensity of his feelings as he came face-to-face with death.
As followers of Christ, Christians do not have to deny our physical and emotional needs. Admitting physical or emotional pain does not mean that a person lacks faith or courage. Rather, honesty about our needs provides others with the opportunity to serve God by caring for us. And just as Christ is our model, our candor serves as models for others.
Telling Our Stories
For those who have advance warning of their impending death, the waiting time provides an opportunity to share stories and wisdom. Computers and televisions cannot replace narratives. By telling our stories we add to the collective memory of our families, friends and faith communities. We enable disciples to grow stronger by placing signposts along life’s pilgrimage.
“Crisis at the End of Life” is one of fourteen articles in the Getting Well: Christian Perspectives on Health, Sickness, and Ministry series. Getting Well deals with major health and biomedical issues.
The Christian Life Commission