I don’t remember the question exactly. It was something like, “What is a good death?” There were five of us sitting in a light-filled room on a cloudy day on the edge of Little John Island looking across a stretch of Casco Bay that reaches to Chebeague. I remember a line of Canada geese trailing by near our shore at the time, as much floating with the tide as swimming. It was a good day. But what is good, if anything, about death?
Was Dylan Thomas’ call, almost demand, of his dying father to fight for life to the last breath, “Don’t go gently into that good night,” a call for a good death? And if so why is the night called good and a letting go into it cowardly?
Is a good death a quick passing, preferably painless? Better yet, if you are thinking of what would be good for you and not those who would have to lug your body out, would you choose to die suddenly atop your favorite mountain or fly-fishing in the Maine wilderness, beauty all around?
But maybe a good death isn’t just about us. It is going to have impact upon others, particularly those who love us. Should they be left out of the picture you are painting? How about gathering them around your bedside flooding the room with the truth of their sorrow as well as the opportunity to express the love that for some damn reason they were too embarrassed or too busy to speak before this moment? And let’s make you strong enough to hear and cry and tell them of your love as you receive theirs. There is goodness in this picture but it isn’t all good is it?
For one thing, the bedside gathering will cost you pain and money. It is probably something such as cancer that put you there. Do you think the pain and the money are worth the love? The pain can be eased but never eliminated, not if you want some measure of consciousness in the picture. The money is a factor but if you have medical insurance it won’t be beyond your family’s means. So let’s put medical insurance on the canvas.
I fear this inquiry is something like the political surveys we get over the phone these days. They steer you to their candidate or position rather than genuinely inquire. I’m about relationships and as much as will be possible I’d like my dying as well as my living to be about giving and receiving truth and love right to the last breath.
Will death in a love-filled room be a good death? If good means without pain, without sorrow, without regret, without loss, there is no such thing as a good death. I’m going to be sad to go when my time comes because the world is so beautiful and my loved ones and friends are so dear. And I know they will be sad too.
A good life is not about perfection, nor is a good death. They are about loving. They are about recognized oneness with each other and the whole created earth and with the great compassionate mystery that has accompanied us from the beginning, sometimes recognized sometimes not, and will accompany us beyond our final curtain on this stage. “God” is a name for it.
Here is the funny thing and a blessed thing, too: It is our imperfection that makes us lovable. And our imperfection can, if we are honest, humble us to the point that we are open to present to one another in our neediness, longing and embracing. It is in that embrace that love thrives, deep joy is known, profound sorrow is shared and life is most fully experienced.
That is a most blessed thing. I have seen and been a part of it in many hospital rooms and some homes. Dying gives us the chance for the most glorious embrace of all. When that happens, it is a good death.
Bill Gregory is a writer and retired UCC pastor who can be contacted at: