The holiday is a rare opportunity in the religious calendar to reflect on death.
By ROB MOLL
Note: This article originally appeared Oct. 29, 2010, in The Wall Street Journal.
For many churches this week, there won’t be any Styrofoam grave stones, skeletons or spooky signs of death and decay. Instead of morbid celebrations of Halloween, there will be innocuously termed—and innocuously decorated—”Harvest Parties.” It’s Halloween cleaned up, made appropriate even for the youngest congregants.
But maybe that’s a wrong approach. Halloween, also known as “All Hallows Eve,” and All Saints Day (on Nov. 1) offer a rare opportunity in the Christian calendar to reflect on death. The holidays were intended to celebrate the communion of the saints, the spiritual unity of all—living and dead—who trust in Christ and await the eventual resurrection of their bodies.
This is the hope on which Christians stake their lives. But in a culture with deep fears of death and dying, even many of the faithful would rather avoid talking about the grave.
Until the 20th century, the idea of the physical resurrection of our bodies shaped how Christians practiced the rituals of death. They used to see the end of life as the most important opportunity to engage their faith and live fully in the presence of God. Following the 14th century’s Black Plague, Christians developed the ars moriendi, the art of dying. With so many people perishing alone, as family and friends either died or fled, an anonymous priest created a book illustrating (with woodcut pictures) the temptations faced by the dying, and how they might be overcome. The images allowed illiterate Christians to die with the guidance of the church. Copies of the book spread throughout Europe and were used for more than a century.
Martin Luther built on this in his “Sermon on Preparing to Die,” in which he advised his followers to trust in the image of Jesus on their deathbeds. In the 17th century, Jeremy Taylor, an English Puritan, argued in his book “Holy Dying” that dying well was not intrinsically different than living a good life: “All that a sick and dying man can do is but to exercise those virtues which he before acquired.” John Wesley, founder of Methodism, asked any follower who was near death, “Do you see Jesus?” All expected that Jesus would fulfill his promise, in John 14:3, to “come back and take you to be with me.”
By the 19th century, English and American Methodists called the tradition the “happy” or the “beautiful” death. While death was as unwelcome then as it is today, people knew to expect it, so they prepared themselves throughout their lives.
The Christian death is meant to mimic Jesus’ own. Before his death, Jesus prepared through prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, offered instruction, and said farewell in the last supper. From the cross, Jesus even arranged his worldly affairs by asking a disciple to care for his elderly mother. He gave up his own life in the hope of defeating death forever. Old tombstones in America’s earliest graveyards express this hope: “Here I lie,” they say, “awaiting resurrection.”
In his book “Facing the ‘King of Terrors,'” the historian Robert Wells quotes the 1824 obituary of Daniel Vedder, a man in Schenectady, N.Y.: “His last days exhibited a scene peculiarly striking. . . . He expressed the most cheerful resignation to the will of his heavenly father. . . . It was observed that as he approached the hour of his death, his views of divine subjects [angels and spiritual beings] became increasingly clear.”
Vedder’s death illustrated the basic elements of the beautiful death. In it, family, friends and neighbors surrounded the dying person. He asked forgiveness for wrongs he had committed and forgave those of others. He confessed his love for each person and offered last words of advice or encouragement. Lastly, the dying person expressed his belief in life eternal and sometimes even described visions of that future realm. Loved ones—whether family, neighbors or church friends—were expected to be present as comforters and witnesses.
Contrast this with modern scenes of hospital patients hooked up to machines for months or years, so bruised and broken that some family members can’t bear to watch. The Christian tradition of the art of dying doesn’t eliminate these difficult circumstances, but it does offer a framework for end-of-life care, and goals to guide choices in our final days.
If learning to die must begin during life, there’s no better time to start than Halloween and All Saints Day. There already exist appropriate nursery rhymes and grammar primers: Think of “Now I lay me down to sleep. . .” Such guidance can lead children toward the knowledge that they too can celebrate the communion of all the saints.
Mr. Moll, a hospice volunteer and the author of “The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come” (IVP Books, 2010), blogs at http://www.robmoll.com.