Learning to die well

By Giles Fraser
10 Mar 2009

If you ask people these days how they want to die, they invariably say that they want to go quickly and painlessly, and preferably in their sleep. Perhaps most of us want death to visit unexpectedly so that we do not have to think too much about it.

As a consequence of this philosophy, one of the things we have lost is the idea that we ought somehow to pre­pare for death.

I say lost because, throughout most of Christian history, the pop­ular idea was that one’s death was something for which one got ready. The Litany, for example, asks that we might be delivered from “dying suddenly and unprepared”.

A few years ago iconolcastic American theologian Stanley Hauerwas picked up the same concern in a lecture in London entitled "the Christian way of death."

This idea of preparing for death makes sense. You say your goodbyes; you set your affairs in order; you make your peace with God; you tell your nearest and dearest that you love them. This is all important stuff, and it is too often bypassed in the conspiracy of silence that sur­rounds the dying — a conspiracy with which, as Hauerwas powerfully points out, the medical profession is all too keen to collude by using its endless rhetoric of cure.

Railing against all this silence and humbug-discretion stands an un­likely heroine: Jade Goody - the British reality TV scar who has discovered she is dying of cancer at the age of only 27 and probably has just weeks to live.

Because silence or shyness about the media is not in her nature, and because she wants to earn money for the futures of the two young children she will leave behind, we have been afforded the most extraordinary access to the last days of a person putting her affairs in order.

Jade’s wedding to Jack Tweed the other week was the most wonderful triumph of joy and courage. Know­ing that she has only a short time to live seems to have galvanised the Big Brother star into a clear focus on what is most important — her husband and her children.

Dying, Jade discovered a burning desire to get married and to have her children christened. If she had passed away quickly and in her sleep, none of this would have happened.

Lent, of course, begins with a reminder that we are all dying. Thus it offers all of us an opportunity to prepare ourselves for a good death, and a spur to figure out what it is that is most important to us. I do not find any of this the slightest bit morbid.

Knowing that we are limited crea­tures is an encourage­ment to look and see and feel and love with greater intensity, taking advantage of every opportunity to do so.

It is remarkable that, I believe, the two people who in recent times have done most to show us the way to a good death are Pope John Paul II and a B-list celebrity with a media reputation for ignorance and a disastrous racial remark.

Thank you, Jade, you have become a star in the real sense of the term. As a result, there is hope for us all.

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(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney and a media commentator on religion and society issues.

This article is adapted from one that appeared recently in The Church Times, with acknowledgement.

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