Curriculum : Dealing with Death


Overview and Purpose:  This activity is designed to appropriately address the topic of death in a coed senior high (9th – 12th grade) Christian education context.  The purpose of this event is to provide participants a Christian perspective of death in light of the liturgical event,  All Saints Day (this could also be adapted for Good Friday or any occasion to address the topic of death) and discuss ways the sacrament of Holy Communion challenges us to apply this perspective in our response to the sick and dying in our current culture.

Goals:  Participants will be encouraged to…

  1. HEAR a testimony from someone in their faith community that has experience caring for the sick and dying,
  2. LEARN the testimony of Holy Scripture in order to develop a Christian perspective of and response to death and the care for the dying.
  3. ENGAGE the testimony of Christian tradition on the subject of death and the care of the dying.
  4. EXPERIENCE the sacrament of Holy Communion through a deepened understanding of the Christian view of death in a way that encourages participants to care for the dying within their community.

Materials and Supplies:

–          Bibles (enough for each participant to have one)

–          Notecards (enough for each participant to have at least four notecards)

–          Pens or Pencils (enough for each participant to have one pen/pencil)

–          At least 20 votive candles

–          At least two lighters

–          Flashlights (enough for each participant to have one)

–          Extra Coats / Blankets (if available)

–          Elements for Communion (bread, juice, chalice, plate, cloth, etc.)

–          Printed copies of “The Great Thanksgiving” (enough for each participant to have one)

–          Adequate Transportation, Church Bus or Volunteer Vehicles

Leadership Needs:

–          Four adults to serve as small group discussion leaders

–          One adult from the faith community to offer testimony from her experience in the care of the dying.

–          One adult to facilitate the overall activity and lead discussion of Christian Tradition

–          One clergy person that is able to officiate communion at the close of the activity.

Location:  This activity is designed to take place in a cemetery.  If you have a cemetery near your church this would be preferred (make note of church members that may be buried there).  You may also use a municipal cemetery but be sure to ask permission from the city.  Also, be sure to notify authorities of your presence in the cemetery if you plan on being there after dark.

Suggested Event Schedule (adapt this to suit your needs):

         5:00 – Gathering / Departure (15 mins)

         5:15 – Arrive at local cemetery / Introduction / Prayer (10 mins)

         5:25 – Focusing Activity – Explore cemetery (15 mins)

         5:40Movement One: Testimony from Community (10 mins)

         5:50 – Response / Discussion Questions (10 mins)

         6:00Movement Two: Testimony from Scripture – Raising of Lazarus (10 mins)

         6:10 – Response / Discussion Questions (10 mins)

         6:20Movement Three: Testimony from Church Tradition (5 mins)

         6:25 – Response / Discussion Questions / Candle Lighting (10 mins)

         6:35 – Communion / Benediction / Departure (10 mins)

         6:45 – Depart Cemetery

         7:00 – Return safely to church

Additional Resources:

Preparation for this activity could include selected readings from these additional resources:

           On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

           The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come by Rob Moll

           The Christian Art of Dying by Allen Verhey

General Instructions for Leader(s):

  • Role of Adult Leadership:  In order for this activity to be most effective, it will be important to strike a delicate balance between two opposing extremes.  First, being that we will be in a cemetery at night, there will be a tendency for the atmosphere to become one of frolicking and goofing off.  This is not the goal of this activity.  It will be the role of the adult leadership to facilitate an attitude of contemplation by being confident in their leadership of the curriculum and clear on the purpose of the activity.  At the other extreme, it will be important for the adult leadership to not allow the activity to become too macabre.  There will be an equal and opposite tendency for the atmosphere to become intimidating and fear-inducing which could be received as manipulative and coercive.  This is also not the goal of this activity.  It will be the role of the adult leadership to facilitate an attitude of solemnity while avoiding the extreme of fear.
  • Tips for Leading Discussion:  During the time of sharing, it will be beneficial to affirm everyone’s opinion as valid in their own experience.  The goal of this activity is not for participants to leave with an unwavering courage in the face of death, but rather to begin a dialogue that enables them to articulate a uniquely Christian perspective of death and the dying.  Take care to allow everyone, including the adult leadership, an opportunity to speak while fighting the tendency to allow certain participants to monopolize the conversation.  Remember, the goal of this activity is not simply the consumption of information by the participants.  Rather it is to provide a safe space to engage the content and dialogue in an honest manner.  The leader should not feel the pressure to have all of the answers.  Instead, the adult leadership should be viewed simply as a facilitator of the discussion.
  • Instructions for Adult Testimony:  This adult will be given guidelines for her testimony which will lead into the discussion questions for Movement One; specifically “Why did you feel it was important to care for your loved one in this way?”  “What was the hardest part of your care for the dying?”  “In what ways does our culture misrepresent the dying process?” “What did you learn about the dying process that informed/challenged your belief in God?”

Introduction / Prayer / Focusing Activity     

          Purpose:  To provide an introduction to the activity as well as to allow students to settle and focus through physical locomotion.

          Materials / Supplies:  Flashlights, Notecards and Pens/Pencils, Additional Coats (if needed)

          Instructions:  Invite students to gather in a circle under the covered patio upon your arrival at the cemetery.  Introduce the evening by saying, “The reality of death is something we all face. We just experienced Halloween or All Hallows Eve which our culture has come to use as a time of frolic and mischief.  We caricature death by dressing up and watching horror movies.  Much of our culture and even many of those in our churches are unaware that All Hallows Eve is actually the eve of All Saints Day, an incredibly significant time in our church calendar.  On All Saints Day, our church remembers all of those believers that have passed on through death before us.  It is a time of remembrance but it is also an important time in the life of the church to discuss the reality of death and our belief that Christ’s action on the cross and resurrection has something to say about death.  With this in mind, I would like for us to spend some time walking through this cemetery and taking note of the names, dates, and epitaphs on the tombstones.  First, everyone needs to find a partner.  You can make notes of interesting names or tombstones on these note cards if you would like (pass out notecards and pens/pencils). Also write down any feelings you experience or thoughts that you have as you walk.  You may also want to take a flashlight so you can more easily view the tombstones (distribute flashlights).  Please remember that this is a cemetery.  There are many loved ones buried here so please be respectful.  This is a time for reflection and contemplation.  Let’s pray together and then we’ll spend some time walking.

(Read prayer aloud in unison)

God of the living and the dead,

We acknowledge in this moment that we too are fashioned from the dust and one day we will return to it.  Therefore, our hope in this life and the next is found only in you.

As we observe these tombstones, let us contemplate the ways in which their lives were much like ours.  They had birthdays, read books, and maybe even fell in love.  Through this realization may we come to recognize you as a God that not only brings forth life out of the dust of the earth but also from the very grasp of death itself.

It is through the authority of Christ by his life, death, and resurrection that we pray.  AMEN.

(Dismiss students to walk through the cemetery.  Have adults walk around as well, observing, listening, and participating.  While students are walking, place the communion elements on a table and arrange the votive candles around them.  After 15 minutes, call students back together around the table.)

Movement One Testimony from the Community

          Purpose:  To allow students the opportunity to hear personal testimony from someone in their faith community about their firsthand experience of caring for the dying, to acknowledge the difficulties in such an undertaking, and to reflect on their own personal experiences with death and dying.

          Materials / Supplies:  Notecards and Pens/Pencils, Additional Blankets

          Instructions:  Have participants sit in a circle where they can see and hear the leader.  Distribute blankets if needed.  Introduce the adult from the faith community that will be discussing her experience in the care for the dying.  After the testimony (approx. 10 mins), thank the adult for her willingness to share and invite the participants to hold her testimony in silence for a few moments.  Then say “You’ve heard one testimony this evening.  What about you?  Everyone find a partner again.  With your partner I want you to answer these questions.  After each question, I’ll allow you to share if you wish.  First, answer this question: “Have you ever experienced death in a personal way, either through the loss of a loved one or through sharing in a friend’s loss?”  Feel free to record your thoughts on your notecard. Allow three minutes for discussion.  After the time expires, invite students to share for two minutes if they desire.  Say “How did that experience affect your view of God?” or “How did a friends loss affect their view of God?”  Feel free to record your thoughts on your notecard.   Allow three minutes for discussion.  After the time expires, invite students to share for two minutes if they desire.

Movement TwoTestimony from Scripture

          Purpose: To provide participants with a scriptural perspective of death and the dying.

          Materials / Supplies:  Bibles, Notecards, Pens/Pencils, Additional Blankets

          Instructions:  Say “It is obvious from the things that you’ve shared that death affects us in many ways.  When we experience the death of a loved one, we are often confused about how we should respond as Christians.  Let’s look and see how the Bible offers us insight into the Christian perspective of death.  Read John 11:32-44.  After reading the text, ask these questions:  “What does verse 35, ‘Jesus began to weep,’ say about how God views death?”  Feel free to record your thoughts on your notecard.  Allow three minutes for discussion.  After the time expires, invite students to share for two minutes if they desire.  Then ask “What do you think Jesus means in verse 40 when he says ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’”  Feel free to record your thoughts on your notecard.  Allow three minutes for discussion.  After the time expires, invite students to share for two minutes if they desire.

Movement Three Testimony from Church Tradition

          Purpose:  To provide participants with testimony from the Christian church tradition of care for the dying.

          Materials / Supplies:  notecards and pens/pencils, additional blankets, communion elements, candles, lighters

          Instructions:  Say “An interesting thing to note about this passage is found in verse 44.  It says that as Lazarus came out of the tomb his face, hands, and feet were bound with cloth.  Jesus tells those that are standing around to ‘Unbind him and let him go.’  Why does Jesus invite others to unbind Lazarus?  What an incredible task!  The people that were moments earlier mourning the loss of Lazarus now get to participate in his unbinding.  Similarly, the early church felt it was their call to ‘unbind’ those in society that were experiencing sickness and death. This was all driven by the church’s conviction that through their care for the dying, they were participating in Christ’s command to ‘unbind’ those that were bound by death.  There are many emotions that we experience in the wake of death but the testimony of the Bible is that Jesus is there to weep alongside us.  Jesus feels grief and is affected by the loss of his dear friend.  The church too shares in this.  We are to mourn alongside those who mourn.  All of this is in anticipation of a time when all tears will be wiped away and all strivings will cease.  In that time, the only death that we will experience is the death of sin itself.  We celebrate this in the sacrament of Holy Communion.  We acknowledge the death of Christ in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of wine.  But we also acknowledge the gift of grace that comes from the death of Christ through the resurrection.  In Christ’s resurrection, death is overcome.  We see that God is the Giver of Life.  Even death itself cannot negate God’s command to live again.  In light of this, let us be people of hope that bring the good news of new life to the dying.  Let us remember the testimony of those that surround us even now in this cemetery as we confidently rejoice that the God that first gave us life will give us life again after death.”

            “Find a partner and discuss this question: “How can you participate in the ministry to the sick and dying in our community?”  Allow three minutes for discussion.  After the time expires, invite students to share for two minutes if they desire.

            Invite students to stand in a circle around the table that holds the communion elements and candles.  Say “Let’s enter into a time of silence and as we do I invite you to come forward and light a candle in memory of a loved one you’ve lost to death this past year.  If you do not know of anyone, you may light a candle for someone whose grave you observed in the cemetery.  If you would simply like to stay where you are that is also fine.  Let’s spend some time in silence as we remember those who have passed from this life to the next.  Allow five minutes for students to come forward to light candles.

After time expires, say “Now let us join in with the saints in saying the Lord’s Prayer.”  Lead group in Lord’s Prayer.  Once prayer is concluded, distribute sheets with “The Great Thanksgiving” and invite the clergy person to begin the consecration of the elements for Holy Communion.  Organize adult leaders to distribute elements through intinction to students.  After all have been served, give this benediction:  Now as reconciled children of God that have been given new life by the Giver of Life, go out into the world to give new life to those that are experiencing death physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  AMEN.




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