“I don’t want to be in pain.”
“I don’t want to be a burden.”
“I want to be at home.”
I’ve often heard people say these things when talking about dying. There is often also an unspoken hope: “I hope my life adds up to something.” If these wishes are met, we might hear “Well at least that was a good death.”
What do you think is “a good death”?
During my time at Hospice, one of our partner agencies suggested we do some collective reflection and research around the question, “What do we mean by a good death?” We scheduled an interagency gathering for the discussion. Being familiar with various spiritual traditions, I was asked to present some spiritual perspectives.
I wasn’t interested in doctrines or beliefs. Instead, I decided to simply explore the stories of how central figures in each tradition died. It turned out to be a memorable exercise.
I started with the Abraham.
Abraham: This is the length of Abraham’s life, one hundred seventy-five years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. Abraham lives a long life that becomes inspirational to his descendants. Sounds good!
I turned to his grandson.
Jacob: On his deathbed, Jacob gives each of his twelve sons pointed comments. He tells them where to bury his body. When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people. A peaceful death in the presence of loved ones, passing on our best thoughts to each one, knowing our duties have been fulfilled — a “good death” for many.
Moses: After a life full of drama, God lets Moses see the promised land, the culmination of his life’s work. But he is not allowed to enter. And Moses the Lord’s servant, died there in the land of Moab by the word of the Lord. And he was buried in the glen in the land of Moab opposite Beth Peor, and no man has known his burial place to this day.7And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eyes had not grown bleary and his sap had not fled.” Moses dies alone, which is not unusual. He dies knowing he liberated his people from bondage and given them a hopeful future. And His eyes had not grown bleary and his sap had not fled. Dying with clear vision and ample energy suggests his awareness was vivid to the end. Sign me up!
Buddha There are different accounts of Buddha’s death. One popular story is he died at age 80 due to food poisoning. One variant says the meal was lovingly cooked for him by a local villager, who was devastated to learn the gift turned out to be fatal. Buddha assures him there is no need for sorrow — he has been preparing for this transition all his life, and now is finally being released into nirvana. His teachings and example have given humanity a source of wisdom that is still relevant 2,500 years later. Death can be liberation.
Mohammed The prophet was in his early 60s. After completing his last pilgrimage, he was home in Medina with his wife Aisha. His health had been declining and his community was concerned. Near the end, he has a period of increased energy, raising hopes of recovery for those close to him. (This is a common occurrence in the dying process.) But not long after, Aisha felt he was lying more heavily in her lap and that he seemed to be losing consciousness. Still, she did not realize what was happening. She heard him murmur the words, “Nay, the most Exalted Companion in paradise,” and then discovered he was gone. One of the most transformative figures in human history dies peacefully at home in the lap of his spouse.
I was fascinated by these stories. Living a long life, being in the presence of loved ones (or on our own, if that is our wish), avoiding extreme pain, knowing we had accomplished something lasting, full of spiritual peace – again, this is what many would say constitutes a “good death”. Each tradition has an inherent integrity, and I was finding wisdom in each one.
Then I turned to the figure I thought I knew best.
Jesus I took a fresh look at Jesus’ death, comparing it to common hopes. Here’s what I found:
- Lived a long life? Died in his early 30s.
- Died in a peaceful loving surrounding? Publicly executed in front of his mother and a crowd of strangers.
- Died with dignity? The Romans used crucifixion as a way to execute enemies of the state, designed to destroy dignity as well as life.
- Pain-free passing? Death by torture.
- Died feeling close to God? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus said before letting out a loud cry and taking the last breath.
Jesus dying on the cross has been a familiar story for centuries. Artists and preachers have tried to outdo each other in portraying it. But until I looked at it from a hospice perspective, I had not realized it represents what most of us fear when we imagine dying.
Yet the more I reflected on it, the more it was strangely comforting. Jesus’ community began to re-experience his presence after he died and concluded that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” A tragic death loses its sting.
We hope for peaceful, painless and meaningful dying experiences. But that doesn’t always happen. How we die does not have to define the life we’ve lived. It’s the life we’ve lived that counts.
 Genesis 25: 7-8, NRSV
 Genesis 49:33. NRSV
 Deuteronomy 34: 5-7, Robert Alter translation
 Karen Armstrong, Muhammed, A Biography of the Prophet, pg. 256
 Mark 15:34,37, NRSV
 Romans 8:39, NRSV