Preparing for the last goodbye


Congregants learn to talk openly about death

By Barbranda Lumpkins Walls | Presbyterians Today
Photo of a cemetery headstone with a large angel on top Caption

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As a bluegrass band played upbeat renditions of “I’ll Fly Away” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” worshipers smiled and tapped their feet on this Sunday morning at Fairview Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. The music was a departure from the standard hymns and choral music heard in the sanctuary on most weekends, but this was a special worship service. It was focused on death and dying.

The service was one of a four-part sermon series called “The Final Chapter: Living, Preparing, Having Hope When Death Is Near,” held at Fairview Presbyterian in January 2020. Each week, the morning services, paired with Sunday school classes, gave congregants an opportunity to openly talk about a subject that is often considered taboo or hush-hush by many.

Fairview Presbyterian is an example of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) churches across the country that are taking steps to equip their members with the nuts and bolts they need to navigate all that comes with preparing for death, loss and grief — not just spiritually, but also mentally and financially. They are offering workshops, seminars and sermon series designed to help members face the final exit.

The Rev. Shawn Coons, Fairview’s pastor, said the overall approach was to deal frankly with issues around death, from caring for the dying and contending with grief to planning a funeral. He wanted to provide scriptural and theological language to talk about the topic as well as practical tools. “From beginning to end, we wanted to talk about death honestly, but always through the lens of Christian hope,” Coons said.

Coons credits his wife, Carrie, with birthing the idea while they were serving as co-pastors at a church in Florida. She thought that a series of workshops and services to help people handle death more intentionally would benefit members. Why not help them prepare before they became too ill or incapacitated to do so? The idea remained on Coons’ mind for several years, even after he and Carrie left Florida for Indianapolis. Finally, it became a reality at Fairview Presbyterian, in time to kick off the year 2020. The timing could not have been better — just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and a season of unprecedented change and loss.

Facing reality

Death is a difficult topic for many people to grapple with, often because they cannot control when, where or how they or their loved ones will leave their life on earth. Also, it’s hard for some to face because of a “lack of knowledge and not understanding that this is a part of who we are as people of God,” said the Rev. Jerry Cannon, pastor of C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We avoid some of the realities.”

The Rev. Jerry Cannon of C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., encourages his congregation to face the realities of dying — both spiritually and practically. Courtesy of C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church

But COVID-19 has taught us that tomorrow is not promised. “None of us is immune from the inevitable,” said Cannon, whose nearly 900-member church is one of the largest African American congregations in the PC(USA). Like a host of other churches, Cannon has seen many of his congregants pass away as the pandemic continues, which has opened people up to more conversations about death and dying.

Before the coronavirus started to rage across the nation, C.N. Jenkins Memorial hosted two seminars in which representatives from a cremation and cemetery operation presented information to church leadership, including costs for services, which they shared with members. Cannon said he wanted people to be prepared not only spiritually for death, but also financially. “Bank of America is not coming to do your funeral,” he said.

Death is real and certain, so there’s no need to tiptoe around the subject. “We have to use the ‘D’ words: death, dying and dead,” said Zeena Regis, a hospice chaplain in Atlanta and a member of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. “We have to normalize death as a part of life. We spend so much time trying to fight against death that we do not actually get to experience the holy and sacred moments at that time.”

Regis has conducted workshops at churches to help parishioners prepare for or at least think about dying. She pointed to Hillside Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, and its “Getting Your House in Order” series of workshops that covered everything from advance directives and wills to hospice care. Regis said Hillside members now have a shared language around death and can openly discuss it.

Getting one’s affairs in order before dying is not a foreign concept to the faith. The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) encourages and instructs session members to help congregants prepare for their Service of Witness to the Resurrection. Unfortunately, many people do not have the basic documents in place to help ease loved ones’ responsibilities of dealing with financial and health care affairs should family members become ill or die. According to the 2020 Will and Living Trust Survey, the number of adult Americans who have a will or another type of estate planning document, such as a health directive, has decreased by nearly 25% since 2017.

While a lack of estate planning may be a declining trend among the masses, the Rev. Moongil Cho said he doesn’t see that as the case among his Korean community.

“It’s very common for Korean Christians to talk about and prepare for death,” said Cho, associate for Korean intercultural congregational support in the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Many have wills, buy burial plots and prepay funeral costs so that their children will not be burdened by the expense and planning. “Christian faith makes us think what it means to live and die,” he said.

A message of hope

Faith is also key to how one faces death. The Book of Order reminds followers that Jesus’ resurrection is a central doctrine of the Christian faith and shapes believers’ attitudes and responses to death. Although death brings sorrow and grief, Christians are called to affirm the hope of the gospel and gather as a community to support one another during such a difficult time.

Supporting others after the loss of a loved one is particularly evident in the Native American community, says Danielle Palomino, an elder in the Church of the Indian Fellowship on the Puyallup Reservation in Washington state. “Everyone mourns together to create a type of celebration,” Palomino said, adding that death can be a beautiful thing when it is not feared. “You’ll often hear in the Native community the saying: ‘It’s a good day to die.’ For us, it’s crossing over into that spirit world. For me, the spirit world is heaven.”

Palomino said her pastor has always been very open about sharing information when a church member is ill so that their community of faith can be there for support — not only in sickness, but also in death.

The sense of community is on full display when a member dies, Palomino said. Tribes will offer financial assistance for funeral expenses to those in need. Many gather for meals, singing, dancing, drumming and prayers — even to make tokens such as tobacco ties and necklaces to give away to attendees at the Service of the Resurrection — often dressed in colorful tribal wear to celebrate the passing of a life.

Overcoming the fear

Death can be a celebration for Christians, yet so many still are afraid to discuss it. So how can people overcome the fear?

First, make death part of normal conversations and have spaces where it’s talked about, says Regis. Start with talking about joy and legacy. “Begin the conversation with these questions: What will bring me peace? What will make me happy? How do you want to continue to be in relationship with me even after I die?”

Regis also says it’s good to ask the family of a dying person some questions to help them focus on what to do to help ease their loved one’s transition and to make dying a holy time. Ask questions such as: “What do they love? What type of music or scents do they enjoy? What helps them relax?”

Regis also recommends that churches address the entire journey of life, which includes the time after a loved one has passed away. Build caregiver and grief support into the life of the church, she added.

“Don’t forget about members after the funeral is over. Churches have a great opportunity to move beyond the nuclear conception of family and support,” Regis said. “Death and dying usually fall on just a few people to be that support. Churches can normalize a circle of support that looks beyond the biological conception of family. It’s great for caregivers, the person who’s dying and the churches.”

And don’t forget to spread the message of hope. That’s what Robin Hess, a member of Fairview Presbyterian in Indianapolis, said stuck with her after the church’s death and dying series.

“As Christians, we have such a message of hope and love,” Hess said. “I was reminded of God’s care for each one of us in our own times of need — and for the power of love shown through individual acts and our community of faith.”

Barbranda Lumpkins Walls is a writer and editor in northern Virginia.

Helpful Books on a Hushed Topic

Learn more about death and dying from these books:

  • “Making Faithful Decisions at the End of Life” by Nancy Duff (2018)
  • “Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life” by J. Dana Trent (2019)
  • “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande (2017)
  • “The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief” by Jan Richardson (2016)
  • “Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper” by Lori Erickson (2019)
  • “Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life” by Ira Byock (1998)

And for opening a conversation among congregants about estate planning and leaving a gift to the church, visit the Presbyterian Foundation.

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