"How Do I Get Ready to Die?"                                                                     
Mysteries. Oh, yes, there’s just something about a good mystery. In fact, most people relish a good mystery as they strive to resolve the riddle, crack the crime case, or achieve the answers. Once solved, the item is no longer a mystery and people’s attention turns in search of a new mystery. Some mysteries, however, remain unsolved.  As such, they continue to confuse and even frustrate the people trying to find the solutions.
Two such mysteries remain unsolved by the human race: the mystery of life and the mystery of death.  While science and technology have identified and clarified many aspects of both life and death, the basic questions remain. “How does life really begin?” “How does death really end?” Throughout the centuries of recorded history mankind has sought the secrets of “beginnings” and “endings,” yet in spite of research and discovery the core secrets remain a mystery to the mortal mind.
The mystery of death both hails and haunts the human heart.  At times it beckons us to draw near to explore its secrets; at other times it besieges us with fear so that we distance ourselves and deny our own mortality.
This unsolved mystery is much more than a mere intellectual inquiry. The subject touches the human life on a daily basis.  It touches my life in both personal and professional settings. My life is touched when family members and close friends die. My life is touched when clients enter therapy with heavy questions like, “How do I get ready to die?” The circumstances may vary, but the basic inquiry remains the same:  “How do we manage the mystery of death?”
On March 08, 1887 Henry Ward Beecher approached his appointment with death. By age seventy-four his work as a minister and a social reformer certainly had influenced and impacted his readiness for death. Allegedly, however, his final words were these:  “Now comes the mystery.”

Perhaps we can connect with Beecher’s statement. Perhaps for us death remains a mystery.  Death, the unknown—an event we’ve never experienced. Death, the unseen—a door through which we’ve never passed. Death, the unsolved—a mystery we’ve never mastered.

If we cannot know death or see death, how can we solve its mystery? Science cannot explain it, and technology cannot prevent it. The total resolution of death’s mystery seems unavailable and unattainable. That being the case, perhaps we can be content with the word “manage.”  We can learn to “manage the mystery” of death. Even though we’re not able to unravel every aspect of the mystery, perhaps we can understand enough so that we will know how to get ready to die.
Essentially, our ability to manage the mystery of death is determined by what we see when we look at death. Therefore, let’s explore the first level of sight— seeing the visible.
                                                           SEEING THE VISIBLE
In our view of death we cannot help but see two familiar features: the fact of death and the fear of death. An examination of both features will equip us more fully to manage the mystery of death.
The Fact of Death . . .

The first feature of death is simple:  death is a fact, a finality to be discerned.
It’s an old question, as old as death itself. “If a man dies, will he live again?” Originally, the question was asked by Job, the patriarch of centuries past, recorded in Job 14:14. Subsequently, the question has been asked by men and women everywhere. It is asked in times of health and happiness as we search for the meaning and mission of life. It is asked in times of hurt and hardship as we suffer from the mistakes and misery of life.
Death is not fiction but fact, not fantasy but finality. The question is not “if a man dies” but rather “when a man dies.”  Life on earth begins with the fusion of conception; it ends with the funeral of conclusion. Indeed, from the womb to the tomb life on earth is a journey with a clear beginning and a clear ending. 
Our basic experience with survival is one testimony that demands that we discern the reality of death. Every funeral, every obituary, every tombstone, every epitaph—all are testimonies that death is real! One epitaph captures this testimony quite well.
                 “Remember me as you pass by; As you are now so once was I;
                 As I am now so you will be; Prepare for death and follow me.”
The story is told that some creative passer-by added a line to the epitaph poem:
                 “To follow you I’m not content Until I know which way you went.”
The Biblical expression through Scriptures is a second testimony that demands that we discern the reality of death. Among hundreds of relevant Scriptures several hold special interest to us.
                “What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the grave?” (Psa. 89:48)
                “The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
                            for they quickly pass, and we fly away. Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psa. 90:10, 12)
                 “ . . . for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.” (Eccl. 7:2)
                 “For it is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment.” (Heb. 9:27)
If we are to manage the mystery of death, we must discern the truth that death is a fact, the finality of physical life.
The Fear of Death . . .

The second feature of death is fear, a feeling we need to disarm.
Fear seems to be a universal emotional response to death. We recognize the presence of fear because of disclosure, people’s admission that they are afraid. This admission of fear was clearly confessed by a character in the acclaimed 1927 musical, “Showboat.” In one song, “Ol’ Man River,” a black dock worker named Joe was reflecting about his trials and tribulations on the Mississippi River. Regardless of his fatigue the hardships kept coming just as surely as the river kept flowing. Joe’s song included his disclosure about death.
                 “Ah gits weary An' sick of tryin'
                 Ah'm tired of livin' An' skeered of dyin',
                 But ol' man river, He jes' keeps rolling' along.”
And then there was Seth, a man whose fear of death escalated his methamphetamine drug addiction. Allow me to share with you the limerick I wrote recently about his fear.
               There once was an addict named Seth
               Who smiled as he snorted his meth;
                        But his smiles became tears
                        And his joys became fears
              When faced with his ultimate death.
               Now Seth comprehended too late
               That death is not something to hate;
                       Overcome by his dread
                       When the drugs left him dead
              The addict succumbed to his fate.”
                                       (Dr. Bill Baker, 2011)

We also recognize the presence of fear because of description, the way people choose to describe their picture of death. For many individuals the “grim reaper” of death is waiting for them around the next curve of the Highway of Life. Other travelers are just waiting for “the final curtain call.” Death was described as “the king of terrors” by Bildad, the not-so-helpful friend who visited Job during Job’s severe illness. (Job 18:14) 

A third indicator of fear is denial, the way people tend to reject the reality of death. They refuse to think about or to talk about death, and they seem determined to delay or put off death for as long as possible. People in denial prefer to think of death as “someday but not now.” Their feelings are described quite well by the graveyard singer in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” when he sang the words from Ralph Stanley’s “O Death”:  “Won’t you spare me over til another year?” However, in spite of our best efforts our “fountain of youth” runs dry and we age with the rest of humanity.
Sometimes we use humor to minimize our fear of death. If we can laugh at death, it must not be so bad. For example, the story is told of three men who were discussing death. The question was posed, “So, if you died, what would you want people to say when they look at you in the casket?” Good question, right? The first man replied, “I hope they would say that I was a great family man, a good husband and father.” The second man said, “Well, I hope they would look at me and say what a wonderful community man I was, a good leader and a public servant.” The third man thought a little longer and then confessed, “To be truthful, I’d prefer that they look down at me and say, ‘Look, he’s moving!’”
Our fear of death often affects our everyday lifestyles in significant ways. We refuse to fly in airplanes because we’re afraid of “crashing and dying.”  We avoid necessary surgery because we’re afraid of “being put to sleep and not waking up.” We resist the aging process because we’re afraid of “getting old and dying.” We decline to visit a dying person because we’re afraid of “catching death and being the next one to die.”
The conclusion is clear. Whether through disclosure, description, or denial people reveal that they are afraid of death.  The universality of fear cannot be questioned.
Even the Scriptures confirm that the fear of death is very real. According to the Bible, death is the enemy and the fear of death is bondage. For example, the Apostle Paul described death in I Cor. 15:26 as “the last enemy to be destroyed.” The writer of Hebrews 2:15 described the human race as people “who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
In my work with people who disclosed a deep fear of death I was always very interested in the details. “Specifically, what is there about death that you fear the most?” One frequent response was rather general: “Oh, the whole thing. I just don’t want to die.” But I’ve heard several specific issues.
       “I’m afraid of the pain. I don’t want to hurt when I die.”
       “I’m afraid of dying alone. That really scares me.”
       “I’m afraid of dying—it’s totally unknown to me.”
       “I’m afraid of losing control.”
       “I’m afraid of just being dead. I don’t know what that is like.”
       “I’m afraid of the timing. I have too many things I need to get done before I die.”
       “I’m afraid to leave my family and my stuff here.”
       “I’m afraid of what may be out there beyond death.”
In my discussions with scared people I’ve tried to disarm their fear through reassuring behaviors and revised beliefs.  To some extent our fear about death can be disarmed through the effective usage of resources and reassurances. We can explore preferences and preparations about funeral services, burial options, and inheritance issues. I’ve encouraged frightened people to examine their basic beliefs about death, simply because their belief system is the generator of the specific emotions that emerge. If they change their beliefs about death, they automatically change their emotional responses to death. For example, the fear about pain can be reduced by the new belief that “pain can usually be managed with medication.“ Also, the fear about “the process of dying” can be managed by the new belief that “dying is just like going to sleep at night; just relax and let it happen.”
However, our efforts to disarm the fear are limited in scope and lacking in success. Regrettably, too much fear remains in the human heart as much of the mystery remains unresolved. Now we face the real problem in our journey toward death. There is a point on our Highway of Finiteness where we have to stop; we cannot proceed simply because our physical eyesight prevents further travel.  If we focus only on the finite (the “visible”)--what we can see, observe, or measure—we cannot discuss the “after death” issues that generate much of our fear. Science and technology cannot go beyond the physical, the finite; they deal only with what is observable and measurable. To explore the “after death” fears we must travel a new highway: the “highway of faith.” In other words, we have to be able to “see the invisible.” 

                                                           SEEING THE INVISIBLE

The phrase “seeing the invisible” appears to be a paradox or an oxymoron, that is, two mutually exclusive or contradictory ideas. To be able to resolve the paradox and to “see the invisible” we must possess spiritual faith, a faith defined as “the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). The writer of Hebrews 11:27 describes Moses as one who “persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” Because of his faith Moses was able to “see” the invisible God, and with that faith he was able to endure and persevere through his hardships.
Consider an illustration. You’ve gone to visit a friend whom you’ve not seen in many years.  Through prior calls and correspondence you’re aware that your friend has developed a beautiful flower garden in his back yard. You’re eager to see what he has done. Once there, you and your friend visit for a few minutes, and you can’t wait any longer. “So, where’s this garden you’ve bragged about so much? I have to see it.” “Of course,” your friend replies, and he takes you to the patio doorway. He points at the door and says, “Look. What do you see?” Now you’re confused. Is he kidding? The door is covered by a thick, black cloth that prevents any vision of his back yard. Your friend allows you to get frustrated, or else he’s building your excitement, but then he pulls the cloth away from the door, revealing to you what lies beyond. Through the glass door you see the most beautiful flower garden you’ve ever seen. The beauty surpasses anything you had imagined. You want to see more, so you ask, “May I go outside into the garden?” Surprisingly, your friend replies, “No, not now. But we’ll definitely visit the garden later.” For now you must be content with seeing the garden through the glass door while remaining inside the house. 
 So, what’s the point? The patio door is the “door of death,” and the cloth covering the door is the “veil of visibility.” If we are determined to see only the physical, our minds are veiled from seeing what lies beyond the door. However, if we allow ourselves to possess faith, the veil is removed and we can “see” what is outside the door. Our faith, the ability to see the invisible, allows us to see through the door of death, even though we cannot actually pass through the door until the moment we actually die. Even with faith our vision is limited as to the details of life beyond the door of death. However, there is one thing we can see clearly:  the resurrection of the dead.  The “veil of visibility” (or the lack of faith) hides the reality of the resurrection; faith removes the veil and allows us to “see” the resurrection.
Our fear of death is decreased significantly by our belief that death is not the end, but rather the beginning of a new life beyond the grave. Fear is lessened by the conviction that we will experience a personal resurrection from the dead. That conviction helps us to manage the mystery of death. However, we still struggle with a huge problem. Since we have not personally witnessed any type of resurrection, why would we therefore believe in one? The answer is found in the person of Jesus Christ, specifically in his resurrection from the dead. If we can believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, our mystery can be managed. Alternatively, if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, our faith is futile and there is nothing “invisible” to be seen by faith. So, how can we believe in Jesus’ resurrection?
Three aspects of Jesus’ resurrection merit our attention. First, we need to examine the Biblical record. There is no indecision or uncertainly about the Bible’s claim for Jesus’ resurrection. The gospel writers declared that Jesus lived, died, and was raised from the dead. There was no doubt that Jesus had been killed. The disciples believed that he was dead; the soldiers concluded that he was dead; the Jewish leaders were satisfied that he was dead. In spite of that confidence, however, the Roman and Jewish leaders took precautions. They had the tomb sealed and a guard was posted. Their efforts were of no effect; the tomb was found empty three days later, just as Jesus had claimed it would be.
Secondly, we need to examine the historical reality. Was Jesus’ resurrection an actual event of history? At first the apostles were skeptical, dismissing as “nonsense” the reports of the women that they had seen the risen Christ. A similar skepticism has continued throughout the centuries as religious leaders and various theologians have denied that Jesus’ resurrection was an event of past history. In fact, multiple theories have been advanced to explain away the alleged resurrection, theories like “the body was stolen,” “the women found the wrong tomb,” and “Jesus was not really dead, he just swooned.” However, none of these theories has been able to withstand the historical weight of three factors. One factor is affirmations:  the Bible clearly affirms that Jesus was raised. A second factor is appearances:  Jesus personally appeared to many people, including a group of five-hundred people at one time. The third factor is accomplishments: the transformed lives of Jesus’ apostles. After the evidence has been collected and considered, the logical student will conclude with the apostle Paul in I Cor. 15: 21, “But the glorious fact is that Christ has been raised from the dead.”
The third aspect of Jesus’ resurrection involves the eternal results that follow. According to the apostle Paul in Romans 1:4, the resurrection of Jesus proves his divinity. His resurrection is also the proof of our own personal resurrection, according to Rom. 8:11 and I Cor. 6:14. Also, his resurrection proves the reality of the judgment to come, according to Acts 17:30-31.
Our ability to manage the mystery of death is based upon our level of faith in Jesus’ resurrection. Our consideration of the Biblical record, the historical reality, and the eternal results will lead us to faith, and that faith will allow us to see through the “door of death” the resurrection that awaits each of us. As faith in our resurrection is increased, the fear of our death is decreased. In his discussion of the resurrection in I Cor. 15 the apostle Paul uses the word “mystery” in his reference to death, but in his conclusion he assures us of final victory.
               “Then the saying that is written will come true, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ Where, O death, is your victory?
                            Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
                But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor. 15:54-57)
After declaring the victory over death and the removal of its sting, Paul encourages his readers to refrain from fear, simply because fear is inconsistent with faith. “Therefore, my brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (I Cor. 15:58) If there is no resurrection, all labor is vain; with a resurrection the Christian’s labor is not in vain. One “bottom line” is evident. If Christ has been raised from the dead, then nothing else matters. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then nothing matters.
Like the apostle Thomas many of us struggle with doubt in regard to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. On one occasion Jesus appeared to the apostles and told Thomas to touch him and to believe. He explained that Thomas believed because he could physically see his resurrected body. Then Jesus declared, “Blessed are they who do not see yet believe.” (John 20:29) His statement certainly describes us today. Indeed, we are very blessed if we have faith because faith removes the veil and we can “see the invisible,” that is, the resurrection from the dead. 

When an unbeliever looks at the “door of death,” he sees only the black veil of non-existence. In contrast, after the “veil of visibility” has been removed by faith, the Christian sees through the “door of death” to behold his resurrection and his inheritance awaiting him in heaven. Thus, death is viewed not only as the ending of his physical existence on earth but also the beginning of his spiritual experience in heaven. This perspective changes the basic meaning of death. The new meaning is inherent within the word.

The acronym DEATH means Death Enables Access THeaven. The door of death is simply the passage through which we gain access to heaven. Through the eyes of faith we see the invisible, and that sight of heaven enables us to face the door of death with calmness, comfort, and confidence. Fear is dissolved by faith.
Understandably, we would prefer faith over fear. To gain faith we must be willing to trust that which we cannot see with our physical eyes. Perhaps we can identify with the blind beggar described in Luke 18:41 when Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The beggar described his need and at the same time declared our need, “Lord, I want to see.” The man’s request was granted when Jesus said, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Even though our physical eyes work well, our spiritual eyes may be clouded or darkened by the cataracts of doubt. Spiritual blindness maintains our fear of death; conversely, spiritual faith sees the true meaning of death and the fear is disarmed. 
The Christian's perspective on death is based upon his faith that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. The Christian believes that through his death, burial, and resurrection Jesus conquered the last enemy, that is, death, and thereby freed us from our bondage to fear. He accepts and applies the inspired writer’s summary of our deliverance from the fear of death recorded in Hebrews 2:14-15.
            “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—
                  that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Concluding thoughts . . .

Our questions and issues about death are not totally resolved, but with spiritual faith death becomes a mystery that can at least be managed. Some questions remain unanswered, but faith steps in and enables us to hope.

In this article I have encouraged the development of a positive perspective about death. That effort is a key component in our preparations for what lies at the end of our earthly journey. Managing death involves making a will, planning a funeral, and, if possible, resolving unfinished business. More importantly, the best management of death requires spiritual preparation, that is, the development of faith—the spiritual vision that equips us to “see the invisible.” I hope that the ideas presented in this brief article will benefit you in your management of your thoughts and feelings about death. I further hope that you will be motivated to consider the role of faith so that you can be released from any current bondage you may have to the fear of death.
When we have made our practical preparations and developed our spiritual faith, then we can face death in the way recommended by Jim Elliott, the American missionary who was killed by the Auca Indians in Ecuador in 1956.  Elliott wrote, “Make sure that when you face death that all you have to do is die” *
In the uncertainty of suffering the patriarch Job asked, “If a man dies, will he live again?” In the certainty of faith Job answered his own question.
                “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth, and after this body has been destroyed and after I awake, I will see God.
                 I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”  (Job. 19:25-27)
With firm faith, eager expectation, and calm confidence the faith-filled traveler journeys toward his destination of death. He travels with hope because his spiritual eyes are open to the journey ahead. Through hardship and hurt he will persevere even through death because, through faith, he can “see the invisible.”
               “So live, that when thy summons comes to join
                The innumerable caravan which moves
                To that mysterious realm where each shall take
                His chamber in the silent halls of death,
                Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
                Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustained and soothed
                By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
                Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
                About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
                                                (“Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant, 1821)
I wish you well as you continue in your travels through life—and in your journey through death. And, as always, I wish you the best in all of your relationship journeys.

*Elliott, Elisabeth (2005). Through Gates of Splendor. Carol Stream, IL:  Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Page 248)

Video:  To view a video of a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Death:  Managing the Mystery" click on the image to the right or just click here. 

Note:  If you’re looking for more information about the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, you’ll find the following resource very helpful.
               McDowell, Josh (1981). The Resurrection Factor. San Bernardino, CA:  Here’s Life Publishers.

Other Resources: If you are looking for additional information about death issues and grief recovery, check out the suggested resources on this website under the Grief Recovery category.
To see this list of resources click the image to the right or just click here.

(If you would like to listen to an audio version of this blog, click the Play button below.)


            (Grief Recovery #1003)


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