The majority of people today live into old age and die of long-term illnesses. It's likely, therefore, that you will have plenty of time to think about your own death. This might seem like a daunting prospect at first, but, used well, this time can be valuable and rewarding.
The comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen once quipped: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Allen’s neurosis about death is something you probably recognise.
It’s natural to feel apprehensive or scared about dying and to pretend that it will never happen. After all, it is one of the biggest unknowns that you will face. It can be surprising, when you consider the impact which death has upon our lives, how few of us actually think or talk about it when we’re alive and well.
However, if you can face up to your death and prepare yourself for it, this could help you to live well. This is an insight that many people gain if they have been close to death.
Maxwell Hutchinson, an architect and Anglican deacon from east London, suffered a serious stroke in 2015 at the age of 65 and nearly died three times. Maxwell believes this experience taught him he was not as well prepared for death as he should have been.
He says: “I found there were aspects of my life with which I was extraordinarily unhappy. I realised that the quality of life hereafter is dependent on the condition in which you enter it.”
Since his recovery, he has examined his conscience on a much more regular basis than he did before his illness.
“You start more to think whether there is anything I am doing now which on entering death would make me feel regret or shame. And it is as much about doing as not doing things,” he says.
Maxwell is visiting chaplain to a care home that has asked him to run an ‘end of life programme’ for residents. He thinks churches need to do more work in this area.
“We take care of our bodies seriously with gym, keep fit, yoga and pilates, but we give no thought to the death part of our lives or to dying well,” he says.
Of course, taking care of your physical health is part of living well. It’s a question of balance. So much in popular culture is about seeking fulfilment by being successful in life and by having a perfectly toned mind and body.
Life coaches often claim to unlock the secrets of the good life by teaching you confidence and strategies to achieve your goals. Wellness clinics, the beauty industry and cosmetic surgery are all about the quest for physical perfection. If all your time is absorbed by such preoccupations, real life may pass you by.
People who have experienced a brush with death or have a life-limiting illness often talk about finding joy in the present moment. Maxwell Hutchinson says his favourite prayer is now “Just for today”.
The playwright Dennis Potter, spoke very vividly on living for the present in a television interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1994, two months before his death from cancer of the pancreas and liver, at the age of 59.
Potter says we’re the only animals that know we are going to die, and yet we forget that life can only be defined in the present tense. He describes what it is like to understand this for the first time:
“That nowness becomes so vivid to me now, that in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene, I can celebrate life. Below my window, for example, the blossom is out in full. It’s a plum tree. It looks like apple blossom, but it’s white. And instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice blossom, looking at it through the window when I’m writing, it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomiest blossom that there ever could be.
“Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter — but the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.”1
Jonathan Riley-Smith described a similar experience shortly before his death after a long illness.
Jonathan, a retired historian at the University of Cambridge, had this advice for the dying: “Enjoy the life left to you and be grateful for it. I am sure that you, like me, will have been astonished to find how quickly you have come to terms with a new existence, in which every moment, lived as though it is your last, becomes precious.
“I found that my senses were intensified, my curiosity was sharpened and the beauty of natural objects and the vividness of my surroundings were enhanced. You will discover yourself embracing this vision, which is the one we had as children, lost with age and now recovered. It is exhilarating and rewarding.”2
Living for the present moment is key to living well – and also to dying well. The popular Dominican writer and preacher, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, who is being treated for cancer of the mouth, puts it like this:
“The best way to prepare for eternal life after death is to enjoy it now, for eternal life has begun, and it bubbles up every time that we love and live and forgive.
“We do not believe in the ‘after life’ but the eternal life of God’s unquenchable love. And so whether I shall live for a short time or, less likely, for long, I give thanks for this experience of the fragility of my life. I must not put off living until it is too late. Carpe Diem!”
As he was preparing himself for his execution, the martyr, St John Fisher (1469-1535) executed at the start of the Reformation, asked his manservant to fetch him a clean shirt. The servant remonstrated with him saying that the shirt would be spoilt. But Fisher said he wanted to wear it because it was his “wedding day”.
While imprisoned in the Tower of London he had earlier written a spiritual consolation to his sister, Elizabeth, in which he stressed the importance of leading a virtuous life and of being “at all times prepared to die”.