The Art of Dying: Living Fully Into the Life To Come
reviewed by D. Andrew Jones
I recently visited the grave of Benjamin Franklin, who famously quipped that the two certainties of life are death and taxes. A few days earlier, I received the news that my aunt had died suddenly, a shock to the entire family. Franklin is right that death is certain, continuing on with 100 percent efficiency. Yet, it is no longer as sudden as it once was. Unlike my aunt, statistics show us that most people are now dying gradually, over a long period of time, with extended illnesses rather than suddenly. Yet, although we have more time to prepare ourselves for death’s approach, we spend most of the time ignoring it or fighting it.
In his new book, The Art of Dying, Rob Moll calls Christians to intentionally prepare for the approach of death, with the same sort of thought and effort many put into retirement. While the world is obsessed with extending life by any means possible, he calls the Church to help people come to terms with the reality and finality of death. Though it may seem paradoxical, Christians are at once “pro-life and embrace death as it approaches.” Of all people who can look death in the face, it should be those who have been baptized into Christ’s death and are united to him who has been raised to newness of life.
As someone who is involved with the dying and Christian funerals on a regular basis, I agree with two tendencies that Moll points to as increasingly common among Christians. The first is the tendency to sentimentalize death and skip any notable period of sorrow. Many people theologically justify their refusal to grieve visibly by pointing to the resurrection of Jesus. Yet he who is the resurrection and the life took time to weep over the death of his friend Lazarus and allowed time for the family to do the same.
Lately, I’ve noticed a change in nomenclature that reflects this tendency, as churches now refer to the funeral service as a “celebration of life” service. Confidence in the resurrection doesn’t mean death is less sorrowful; it means death doesn’t get the last word. Death is not a friendly neighbor but a home invader, robbing us of relationships we treasure.
The second tendency common today is to think and speak of death merely as a medical experience. With people living longer and dying more slowly, middle-aged Americans find themselves shuttling aging parents to and from doctor appointments and making arrangements for their extended care. Prayer requests are commonly made regarding tests and procedures.
Lost amid this barrage of medical treatment are the spiritual realities of death. Though churches hold workshops to assist people in getting their medical affairs in order, there doesn’t seem to be equal attention given to assisting people in getting their eternal affairs in order. I am thankful for Moll and others who remind us of the dangers of thinking of death as purely a medical experience.
The one noticeable weakness of the book is what is missing from its pages, that is, any lengthy consideration of cremation. I have noticed that this is becoming the default method of burial among many Evangelical Christians in America. It seems to be driven by practical concerns, mostly financial, without any significant consideration of theological concerns that may accompany it. We are becoming increasingly pragmatic and utilitarian even when it comes to death and the human body. Since this is an abrupt change that took place over the course of the last century, it would have been nice to see a robust treatment of the subject.
A Call to Readiness
Moll writes like a journalist, supplying plenty of statistics to support his assertions and providing true stories from his own experience and that of others. He doesn’t write from the perspective of a pastor or theologian, though his beliefs are clear. He also doesn’t write as a detached observer. Having worked in a hospice setting and in a funeral home, Moll can testify in the first person as to how Christians do not appear to be any more prepared for the experience of dying as anyone else.
Though his book is the newest treatment of the subject, it is not the first. Rather, it draws from the work of John Calvin (Psychopannychia), Richard Baxter (The Saints’ Everlasting Rest), Jeremy Taylor (Holy Dying), and C. S. Lewis (A Grief Observed). Moll is also quick to point the reader to the mourning practices and burial traditions of earlier Christians, as useful resources and helpful examples of dying well.
This book is a welcome call to the Church to recover a reasonable readiness for death. As Moll writes,
My grandfather was brought to deeper faith in Christ during World War II when he served as a chaplain’s assistant during the Battle of Iwo Jima, spending most of his days digging graves. Contemplating the reality of death compelled him to contemplate matters of eternity. Reading Rob Moll’s book forced me to do the same, and I trust will have the same effect upon all who read it.
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