Preparing for Your Death
I have a friend whose parents believed that if they bought life insurance, they would die the next day. They had a fatalistic attitude: prepare for death and you will die imminently; don’t prepare and you will live a long healthy life. The result of their philosophy was predictable: when they died, their children had no insurance money to cover the funeral. I’ve seen this attitude many times in my years of ministry, and later in this newsletter, I’ve chosen to give some Christian advice about death, dying and funerals to help others overcome it.
This question of how much preparation we should make for our death confronted me recently when I took a tour of some of the cemeteries in Chicago. I marveled at the beauty of some of the gravestones, mausoleums and monuments that Chicago’s elite had dedicated to their memories. Some had made meticulous preparations for their demise, taking pains to purchase the best lots. Others, no doubt, thinking that preparations for death would only hasten its coming, waited, hoping to cheat death and win a few more months or years of earthly existence.
During my visits, I read the words on as many tombstones as I could, noting also the length of each life. In some of Chicago’s cemeteries the poor are buried with the rich, the murderers are buried next to the philanthropists; the communists are next to the capitalists. And the life spans are as varied as the ages at a family gathering.
Rebecca and I have not yet chosen our cemetery plots, but it is on our agenda to do so. We think that if one of us were to die unexpectedly, or if we were to die in a joint tragedy, we are doing those left behind a favor by taking care of as many matters as possible while we are alive. We do not believe that if we buy a burial place today it will be used tomorrow. Wisdom dictates that we plan for our death knowing it might happen tomorrow and plan for the future expecting to die of old age.
In the early centuries of the church, the Christians were distinguished from the pagans by their attitude toward death. When the plagues came, the Christians accepted death with tranquility, knowing that they would be reunited in the world to come. In contrast, the pagans refused to be comforted. They said of believers, “They carry their dead as if in triumph!”
Christians should die differently than the people of the world. They should not be superstitious, thinking that their future is in the hands of fate. Above all, we should be able to plan for our death with a realistic understanding of this life and the one that is to come.
A: Not in detail. However, Rebecca and I have often talked about what I would want. She knows who I would want to have speak, who I’d like to have deliver the eulogy, and some of the music I’d like to have.
Q: When we’re healthy and the future looks bright, isn’t it true that we can think of others dying but not ourselves?
A: Yes. In fact, a philosopher once said that “no man can think of his own death anymore than one can continuously look at the sun.” Yet the Christian is not deluded; he knows that not thinking about it won’t change its reality.
Q: What do you think Christians can do to be more realistic about death?
A: This summer I spoke to a Christian oncologist who has presided over the death of thousands of cancer patients. I asked him about the difference between Christians and non-Christians in facing death. He surprised me by saying that the unbelievers are often more realistic; they accept that they will die. Christians often refuse to face death, believing that there will be a last-minute miracle.
He told me stories of Christians who died without talking to a spouse about the funeral or family business. They kept thinking, “If I talk about death, that means I am expecting to die… If I don’t talk about it, I will show my faith in the Lord and He will do a miracle.” But they died nevertheless. It’s important for Christians to realize that preparing for their own deaths isn’t tempting death or showing lack of faith in God—these are preparations we will all need someday, and the responsible Christian won’t let this burden fall on his or her relatives.
Q: What advice do you have about caskets?
A: Not much, except to say that we should not be lured into buying something expensive with the vain hope that the body will be preserved, etc. Also, those who spend a lot on caskets for their loved ones to ease their guilt should keep in mind that now is the time to lavish love on our family and friends, not after they are deceased.
Q: What do you think about cremation?
A: I must tread carefully here; I don’t believe cremation is a sin, but if you have the choice, the New Testament Church always preferred burial. Paul says that the body is like a seed that is put into the ground and then it comes up in resurrection. Jesus was buried; the body is so important that the devil disputed with Michael over the body of Moses. We honor the body because of the resurrection, it is not to be burned as if it is refuse. Of course sometimes cremation is best in the case of plagues, and sometimes we have no choice. But I personally want to be buried.
Q: How important is the funeral service?
A: Incredibly important! That’s the time when the relatives and friends are most sensitive to the Lord. It should be a time of sorrow and joy; it should honor the loved one but never at the expense of magnifying Jesus. And it should always have an appeal for those who have come, inviting them to believe the Gospel.
As Christians, our life—and its ending—belong to God. Our death is a transition to eternal life with Him, our estate and funeral planning are a service to our loved ones, and our funeral is a final opportunity to share the Gospel with our unsaved friends and family. In that light, we can face our own death with the same tranquility as the early Christians!