Off the Shelf: The Art of Dying

Books new and old that have caught my eye.

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

By Rob Moll

How should Christians care for the dying? How can we honor their last days, grieve for them, then learn to let go? Moll, an award-winning journalist, revisits Christian theology and church history (e.g., John Donne, the Ars Moriendi) for guidance, and interviews pastors, ethicists, and hospice workers. Probing insights. 200 pages, softcover. InterVarsity.

I worked with Rob at Christianity Today and encouraged him to write this book, his first. Why did Rob, who is a mere lad of 28 years, pen a tome on death? Rob’s interesting answer is below. You can find out more at his website.

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I was visiting my great aunt as she was dying of breast cancer. She was in the same apartment as she’d lived in for decades, the same apartment where I’d visited her as a child. I saw her twice in her final days and the last time she was very sick and only a week away from death. The hospice team had brought in a hospital bed to replace the bed in her room. She spent most of her time there in bed. She couldn’t say much, at least much that I could understand. And so the responsibility came to me to do something with the time.

I had come in order to see my aunt, who I knew was dying. But I felt that I could do nothing more than see her. Conversation seemed silly. Saying anything at all seemed a little ridiculous in that moment. And it wasn’t like we shared a long history of memories to recall. She was nearly 60 years older than me, and all I remembered was her habit of giving me, my brother, and my sister packages of one-serving boxes of sugary cereal.

I left my two visits with my great aunt with the feeling that I had completely failed. I had nothing, within myself, to bring to those moments. I killed time and left when appropriate. But I couldn’t really do anything for my aunt. I stood there awkwardly trying to think of things to say. In an important moment, one of the most important periods of life, I had nothing to offer. I’d failed.

That experience made me aware that I needed to develop the ability to be with a dying or very ill person. While this was my first experience, I knew it wouldn’t be my last. So my senses were heightened to the issue. When I later read Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy, I noticed the 3 pages he gives to death. In the 300 pages of the book, those are the ones I best remember. He says that death is like falling asleep and waking up in a new place. Or that it is like walking from one room into another. In the doorway, death, some people see both rooms at the same time. Then, Willard says, before the heavy use of anesthesia it was common for people to speak with family members who had already died. It was as if these familiar faces had come to ease the dying person’s entry into eternity.

What!!! I’d never heard this before. It seemed unbelievable to me that I was learning about this for the first time. It seemed too important to only be discovering in my late 20s. After this, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the end of life. There was a certain morbid curiosity about it, but mainly I wanted to learn because I saw it as essential to my life–my living rightly and my ability to develope the skills necessary to be with the next family member who might be on her deathbed.

What I found in my research was that Christians once had very specific rituals and practices surrounding death. As the site of death moved to the hospital, these practices fell away because professionals, with medical expertise, stepped in. However, we need these practices now more than ever, because today–more than in the last 80 years–we are likely to be involved in someone’s dying. We’re likely to be involved because dying has become an extended, drawn out process. Diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes are our leading causes of death. These are chronic and gradual illnesses, and they require the extensive involvement of family members in caregiving. In fact, about 67 million Americans are caring for an elderly person, usually a family member.

My experience with my aunt would certainly not be my last. As a hospice volunteer, I’ve been able to be with others on their deathbed. I’ve been able to spend those moments in meaningful ways that I hope have helped the dying. It has certainly made my life more meaningful. And I hope The Art of Dying will help readers in the same way.

About Stan Guthrie

Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is God's Story in 66 Verses. He also is author of All that Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy. He is co-author of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Besides authoring, writing, and editing books, Stan is a literary agent, bringing together good authors, good books, and good publishers. Stan writes the monthly Priorities colum for BreakPoint.org. He has appeared on National Public Radio's €œTell Me More,€ WGN's Milt Rosenberg program, and many Christian shows, including The Eric Metaxas Show and Moody Radio'€™s €œNew Day Florida.€ A licensed minister and an inspirational speaker, he served as moderator for the Christian Book Expo panel discussion, Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?
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