Death is Not the Enemy

Why End-of-Life Issues Should Matter to Churches

by Martha R. Jacobs

Near the end of his life, friend and preacher William Sloane Coffin wrote in his book Credo, “Death cannot be the enemy if it’s death that brings us to life. For just as without leave-taking there can be no arrival; without growing old there can be no growing up; without tears, no laughter; so without death there can be no living.” Yet even today, we see that death is indeed perceived to be the enemy —an opponent that no one wants to talk about—yet we all must face.

I see a great need in our churches for discussion and active preparation around end-of-life issues. Polls in the last fifteen years indicate that congregations and clergy are not addressing end-of-life issues. A 2001 study of Kansas City faith leaders revealed the following:

  • two-thirds of the congregations did not have any programs or other means to teach members of the congregation to minister to the seriously dying
  • less than half of the faith leaders thought they were “very prepared” to minister to those who are seriously ill or dying

Gallup described their 1997 poll as a “wake-up call to clergy”: only 36 percent of respondents believed that the clergy would be “especially helpful” at the time of death. I am sure this number has not shifted dramatically since then. Indeed, in my own experience, many clergy are ill-equipped to handle these crucial moments in their congregants’ lives. During my years as a hospital chaplain, I became aware that many clergy had never conversed with their congregants about their health care wishes as they moved toward the end of their life (not even with their frail and elderly congregants, or those living alone). Some clergy had talked with individuals about how they wanted to be buried or what they wanted at their funeral, but clergy did not venture into discussions about what happens before someone’s funeral. Yet these issues are some of the most pressing of our time and only increasing in their urgency.

I see teaching and, especially for clergy, preaching about end-of-life issues as part of our faith and service. But it is not only clergy that need to address these issues. Congregants should be considering them as well. If your clergyperson is not addressing end of life issues, it is up to you to raise them and ask for information, workshops, and sermons that address end of life issues. In the end, it will be the congregants who will feel bereft or feel empowered. It is up to each person to take control of what their wishes are as they near the end of life.

The Bible provides many starting points for personal or group study on this issue. St. Paul in particular assists me in dealing with death and with life. In Romans, he writes: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35, 38-39). Paul shows us that God’s love is powerful and complete; God will not desert us in life or in death. God is with us not only prior to our death and after our death, but also while we are dying. The experience of dying is also of God. Paul is telling us that even though we may think differently, death is not a lapse of God’s love or God’s presence, it is the fullness of God’s love.

This is the love that we as congregations demonstrate while being present with people as they live their life and as they transition from this life to the next. We need to prepare each other more effectively for the end of life. I believe that the greatest gift we can give to those who love us is to let them know what our wishes are as to how we want our bodies treated as we near the end of our life.

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