The Dilemma of Discussing Death

The Devil with a hooking staff and Death himself with a soldier’s pike are attempting to snare the soul of this dying man. Ars Moriendi depictions such as this manuscript illustration from fourteenth century England illustrated the crisis of faith that inflicts every person at their death.

This is our dilemma.

The fear of death is intrinsic to the human condition.

In youth ministry, the question of whether you will have to address the issue of death is not a question of “if” but “when”.  Perhaps, the only thing more uncomfortable than articulating a Christian understanding of death with teenagers is the inability to articulate a Christian understanding of death when a tragic event arises in your ministry.  

As Halloween approaches, more and more of our culture will begin to caricature the reality of death through movies, shows, and events.  But what does our faith have to say about the reality of death and how can we better articulate a uniquely Christian understanding of death in our youth ministry?

The early Christian church was known as a place of compassion, care, and sanctuary for the infirmed and dying.   The Christian tradition is replete with practices that governed the entirety of the life of faith, including death.  This tradition would later be codified and systematized in a practice called Ars Moriendi or “the Art of Dying”.  This practice, previously reserved for clergy, was made accessible to all church members during the Black Death epidemic of the 14th century.  Because of the overwhelming amount of death, the Roman Catholic Church deemed it necessary to equip it’s constituents with a practical guide for dying in a Christian manner.

Ars Moriendi  consists of six chapters and provides the believers with lengthy discussions on the nature of death, temptations to expect during the dying process, questions to aid the dying in reaffirming faith, encouragement to continue the Christian life even in the dying process, general rules of behavior for friends and family at the deathbed, and appropriate prayers to be said for a dying person.  This practice established the Christian church as an authority on the dying process and a compassionate witness to all of those in the community.

Today, in a culture that is unwilling to face the reality of death, what is the church’s response?

It is not difficult to observe our culture’s (and church’s) inability to cope with the reality of death.  The advancement of modern medicine has allowed hospitals and clinics to replace the Christian community as the hub of healthcare in our societies, thereby relegating the process of dying to these facilities.  Therefore, death seldom occurs in familiar surroundings.  Instead, the individual lives out their last moments in an impersonal and mechanical environment.  Many ethicists have stated that this has profound implications on the way in which our culture views death and our ability as a society to cope with its permanence.

This is also evident in our Christian culture.  For example, fewer and fewer cemeteries are located adjacent to worship buildings.  The presence of graveyards, crematoriums, and crypts was once a mainstay of Christian architecture.  This allowed the worshiping community (and the community in general) to view the church as a place that provided instruction and support for those experiencing death.  At some point, congregations decided that this “presence of death” was unattractive and a bit macabre.  As death was relegated to medical facilities the church lost its place as the central care provider in the dying process.

This has led to the inability to speak about death in the faith community.  As believers, we’re often confused about our role in the dying process.  Am I allowed to grieve or does my grief exhibit a lack of faith?  How do I talk to someone who is dying without filling the conversation with meaningless cliches that do more harm than good?  How do I console a grieving friend?

These are important questions that our Christian tradition is able to answer.

Unfortunately, the best our modern christian culture can come up with is caricaturing the dying process in a way that is manageable for our sensibilities.  Let’s be honest…if you’ve ever been in the room when someone is dying then you realize death is not “simply a door to a better place.”  Death is a horrible thing.  For us to act like it is anything other is not only disrespectful of the dying individual but also to the reality of death as described in the New Testament, namely that death is the enemy of God’s creation.  Christians have no need to fear death, not because death is not horrible, but because Jesus Christ has conquered the power of sin and death and provided us hope of eternal life.

So what can we do as the church to reclaim our Christian tradition of dying well?  Below are a few things you can do this month with your youth ministry as you prepare for All Saints Day.  Also, there are some resources you might find helpful.

Practice consoling the dying…

Make sure to provide opportunities for your students to interface with dying members of your congregation.  There are many things that students and the dying can learn from one another.  This seems counter-intuitive given our cultural proclivity to separate ourselves from the dying, thus diminishing their value as people.  However, those that are facing death, young and old, need the body of Christ to surround with love and support during their final days more than ever.  Talk to them as people.  Don’t act like they can’t hear you or have already passed.  Learn to treat the dying with dignity and hold their last moments in a spirit of holiness.  Take time to arrange youth visits to nursing homes, hospitals, and those that are home bound.  Find ways to teach students to share in the death process by valuing every individual, no matter what their situation.

Remember those who have passed on…

The liturgical calendar is invaluable in providing the Christian church with opportunities to teach on death.  Many congregations hold some sort of All Saints Day celebration.  Why not do this for our youth as well?  Hold a service where students can remember the lives of those that have have passed on in the previous year, including family members, friends, pets, etc.  Lead students in prayers of remembrance and celebration for those meaningful relationships in their lives.  Allow students the freedom to ask questions, grieve, and confess hurts in a safe environment.

Visit a cemetery…

If you do not have a cemetery near your church then arrange a time to take your group to one.  Have the students walk (respectfully) through the cemetery and notice the names and dates on the tombstones.  If you can find someone with family buried in the cemetery, it could be interesting to have that person give a testimony of the people that are buried there.  Allow students time to pray, journal, or simply remain in silence.  Guide them to ask difficult questions about their own mortality and reflect on ways that they can begin living well in preparation for a good death.

Additional Resources:

The Christian Art of Dying: Learning from Jesus by Allen Verhay

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

On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross


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