Dying Well

“Those who face death experience the living presence of God through the living presence of the community that cherishes and mourns them.”

— Amy Plantinga Pauw


Thoughts and questions to help you consider this practice

Death is a frightening prospect, for the specter of death destroys any illusion that we are in full control of our lives.

How is it, then, that some people are able to die with the assurance that death is not the final word? In the Christian practice of dying well, Christian people do things with and for one another in response to God's strong love, translating into concrete acts our belief in the resurrection of Christ and of ourselves. Dying well embraces both lament and hope, and both a sense of divine judgment and an awareness of divine mercy.

Wisdom and care for our time

Even in death, we are not alone. Christian worship demonstrates this through its weekly celebration of resurrection, annual remembrance of Christ's death and resurrection, funerals, singing, anointing, and care for the bereaved. Yet Christians harbor confidence that God is actively working against the powers of death in all creation. How does your congregation nurture resistance to the powers of death in this world?

How does the "rescue credo" of modern medicine interfere with our chances of dying well? What kinds of hope can we offer the dying, besides that of elusive and high-risk physical cures? How does such hope give us courage to admit the limits of today's medical care?

What do hospitals and funeral homes do to shape the contemporary experience of death? What hospital rules and burial laws or customs complicate our efforts to assist one another in dying well?

Lament and hope

While death does not separate us from God, death does evoke despair and anger. What do psalms of lament (for example, Psalms 6, 22, 42, 69, 77) teach us about exposing emotions, rather than hiding them?

Christian practices provide no formula for transforming premature, tragic, or unjust deaths into good deaths. When is it most difficult to find redemptive significance in a "bad death"? What are ways the church can convey that one's life continues to matter to the community, no matter what kind of death?

In the life of Christian faith, lament is joined with hope. How does Jesus' conversation with Mary and Martha (John 11:17-27) point to this paradox?

As followers of Jesus, we cannot save death and dying for the end of our lives. Paul writes that our baptism involves us in dying with Christ (Romans 6:3-5). How does living with this awareness prepare us for the dying of our bodies?

Judgment and mercy

Many people near death with a sense of needing forgiveness. Do you know of any times when words of confession or forgiveness at the end of a life led to reconciliation with others or greater trust in God?

No one can count on dying well in a biological sense. Yet some Christians radiate faith and love even when their bodies are failing. Caregivers can radiate such faith and love as well, communicating the merciful presence of God in another way through their loving care for the body of one who is dying. Do you know anyone whose death has inspired those around him or her? Do you know anyone who has faithfully cared for someone through a prolonged period of dying?

In life and in death, we are God's

A serene death is not a test for proving spiritual maturity, and a difficult death is no indication that faith is lacking. When a death is long and difficult, how can others claim God's promises on behalf of the dying? How does cherishing and mourning a person who has died in turn prepare members of the community for the death eventually coming to them?

Like those being baptized into Christian faith, those who are dying draw strength from the faith of the entire community. How can the ways in which we remember deceased members of our communities prepare us for our own deaths?

  • Play charades. Act out euphemisms about death or dying you have heard (kick the bucket, wasted, croaked, passed on, etc.). What do these euphemisms tell us about our attitudes toward death? Which euphemisms about death and dying are difficult to act out? Why?
  • On the Sunday nearest All Saints' Day, plan a ritual in which the names of those who have died within in the past year are read aloud, with a pause for remembrance, the lighting of a candle, and then a congregational response.
  • Appoint a task force to establish a memorial garden adjacent to your church building. Tour local cemeteries or visit other churches and memorials to collect ideas for memorializing people who have died.
  • Build a memorial wall to commemorate All Soul's Day (November 2). Borrowing from the idea of the Vietnam War Memorial, embellish paper or ceramic blocks and write a deceased person's name on a block along with the date and age of the person's death, and cause of death, if known. Decorate with pictures or words about the person's interests or hobbies.
  • Compose a prayer about death and dying. Use this group method: write the word "death" in the middle of a chalkboard or a piece of newsprint. Ask participants to free-associate words that connect to the word. Write those words all around the central word "death," connecting them with lines to the center. As the words begin to pile up, use the "satellite" words to free-associate with yet more words, both verbs and nouns. When the paper or chalkboard begins to fill up, stop the free association, and begin using the words generated to create a prayer together. First choose one or two of the words as an address to God (it could even be "God who is close by us in death" or "life-giving God" or "Great Mystery"). After the address, use the words to describe the action that God has done, to express thanks, to make a confession, to petition God, to promise faithfulness, or any combination of the above. Rearrange the phrases as you see fit. Close the prayer with "amen." Present this group prayer to your pastor or worship committee for use in congregational worship.
Photo of flowers at sunset
  • Research possibilities for keeping funerals in the hands of the family or faith community. Is it possible to bury the deceased in a family plot? What local burial laws or customs help or impede dying well? Who could take what role — creating a memorial service, making the songs — in your family/community?
  • Read aloud one or two psalms of lament (Psalm 22, 42-43, 60, 88, 129, 137). Allow the appropriate portions of the psalm to evoke despair and anger, raw intensity of emotion.
  • Read through the funeral service(s) in your church's book of worship. What elements of lament, hope, judgment, and mercy do you see? Compose a memorial service for yourself. What scripture passages, hymns, prayers, and rituals would you include in your own service?
  • Introduce older children and youth to the structure and procedures of a funeral service. Tour a funeral home and arrange for conversation with a funeral home director. Use bulletins from a recent funeral service to examine the order of worship.
  • If you are called to sit by the bedside of someone who is dying, speak the prayers and sing the songs on that person's behalf, if they are too weak to do so.
  • Things to do for someone who has lost a family member or friend:
    • Go visit the person who is grieving.
    • Make and send a card or a picture frame.
    • Bake cookies for a family with children, or offer to babysit.
    • Help serve a family dinner provided by the church at a funeral service.
    • Rake leaves, wash windows, mow the lawn.
    • Plan a fund-raiser to assist with medical expenses for a family that has experienced great medical expenses.

Worship Materials

"We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living."

— Romans 14:7-9


This litany claims God's promises on behalf of someone who cannot claim them for himself or herself.

O God, Center of us all,
Let us circle 'round you, to claim for __________ what s/he cannot claim for her/himself.
You have not promised Life without lament
But you do promise
Lament can lead into Your Center.

We lay hands on this promise for __________.

You have not promised Eternal life in the body
But you do promise
That sometime all may be re-membered to the Body they left behind.
You have not promised Death without pain
But you do promise
An end to pain.

We lay hands on this promise for __________.

You have not promised Full control of our lives, or our death
But you do promise
That our death need not have ultimate control over us.

We lay hands on this promise for __________.

You have not promised Everything set right before death
But you do promise
Forgiveness to those who seek reconciliation.

We lay hands on this promise for __________.

You have not promised no separation from those we love
But you do promise
That death cannot separate us from God, who creates and holds tender those we love.

We lay hands on this promise for __________.

You have not promised Perfect understanding of the timing and ways of death
But you do promise
To be near as breath as we travel that journey.

We lay hands on this promise for __________.

You have not promised Death without mourning, no darkness of the soul as we pass that way
But you do promise
An unwavering Light to meet us.

We lay hands on this promise for __________.

O God, Center of us all,
Encircle us with your grace as we lift before you our sister/brother.
Grant us your peace which passes all understanding.
Bless us and keep us and make your face to shine upon us
This day and forevermore.


— Lani Wright, Cottage Grove, Oregon

Outdoor bench surrounded by flowers


Jesus, Remember Me

"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Text: based on Luke 23:42
Copyright (c) 1981 Les Presses de Taizé

Today I Live

"Today I live, but once shall come my death."
Text: Fred Kaan
Text copyright (c) 1975 Hope Publishing Co.

Shepherd Me, O God

"Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life."
Text: based on Psalm 23, Marty Haugen
Text and music copyright (c) 1986 G.I.A. Publications, Inc.

Hymn of Promise

"In the bulb there is a flower..."
Text and music: Natalie Sleeth
Text and music copyright (c) 1986 Hope Publishing Co.

We Walk By Faith

"We walk by faith, and not by sight..."
Text: Henry Alford
Music copyright (c) 1984 G.I.A. Publications, Inc.

For All the Saints

"For all the saints, who from their labors rest..."
Text: William W. How

Books & Films

Read more about Lament for a Son
Lament for a Son
Nicholas Wolterstorff

Well-known Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has authored many books that have contributed significantly to scholarship in several subjects. In Lament for a Son he writes not as a scholar but as a loving father grieving the loss of his son.

Read more about Turn My Heart: A Sacred Journey from Brokenness to Healing
Turn My Heart: A Sacred Journey from Brokenness to Healing
Susan Briehl and Marty Haugen

This book by Susan Briehl and musician/composer Marty Haugen includes texts, songs, and several prayer services for use at home or around the bed of a dying person, including a prayer of commendation for those to whom death draws near.

Read more about Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality
Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality
Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch, poet, funeral director, and author of the highly praised The Undertaking, winner of an American Book Award and finalist for the National Book Award, continues to examine the relations between the literary and mortuary arts.

Read more about How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter
How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter
Sherwin B. Nuland

The definitive resource on perhaps the single most universal human concern: death.

Read more about Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life
Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life
Ira Byock

From Ira Byock, prominent palliative care physician and expert in end of life decisions, a lesson in Dying Well.

Read more about Ordinary People
Ordinary People
Judith Guest

Ordinary People is an extraordinary novel about an “ordinary” family divided by pain, yet bound by their struggle to heal.

Read more about Shadowlands

Tells the story of C.S. Lewis’s romantic relationship with Joy Gresham, an American fan who wins his heart and then discovers she is terminally ill.

Read more about Cocoon

Offers insight into perspectives on aging and dying in contemporary society. A group of older adults discovers “the fountain of youth” in a Florida swimming pool. They must choose between remaining with family and friends on Earth — and dying — or leaving Earth on an alien spaceship with the prospect of living for millennia.

Read more about Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral
Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral
Thomas G. Long

Long begins by describing how the Christian funeral developed historically, theologically, and liturgically, and then discusses recent cultural trends in funeral practices, including the rise in both cremations and memorial services. He describes the basic pattern for a funeral service, details options in funeral planning, identifies characteristics of a “good funeral,” and provides thoughtful guidance for preaching at a funeral.

Read more about Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve
Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve
Sandra M. Gilbert

Prominent critic, poet, and memoirist Sandra M. Gilbert explores our relationship to death through literature, history, poetry, and societal practices.

What Others Are Doing

Read more about Ministry on death and dying teaches people how to plan for the end of life
Rev. Sabrina Gray, left, and Dr. Gloria White Hammond, co-pastor of Bethel AME Church, Boston, are seen in the church on October 31, 2019 in Boston. Photo by Angela Rowlings


read more about Meditation – The Place of Dying in the Whole of a Christian Life

Meditation – The Place of Dying in the Whole of a Christian Life

Frederick Niedner

This meditation was presented at the Accompany Them with Singing Conference, January 2010.