This reflection was written by Dio Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community. You will find reflections from previous weeks here.
I watched the last episode of “The Crown” last week, bringing to an end the 60-episode series that tells the story, with considerable liberty with the facts, of Queen Elizabeth’s long reign in Britain.
Part of the plot of the final episode, which is set in 2005, revolves around reviewing plans for Elizabeth’s funeral. It is an awkward conversation in that Elizabeth is still very much alive but being asked to weigh in on questions like what music she wants and how the funeral procession will unfold. The person who seems to be enjoying the whole thing the most is her husband, Prince Philip, who is also reviewing plans for his own funeral. At one point, Elizabeth and Philip stand in St. George’s Chapel where both will be buried and Philip somewhat gleefully stamps his foot on the floor and says, “And we’ll be right under here!” He also tells his wife that he finds the whole funeral planning business to be “rather stimulating!”
The episode, I think, has some important lessons for pastoral ministry, the first of which is this: talking about a person’s death before they die is quite a good thing! Understandably, many people have many different feelings about the end of their life. But a fundamental truth of the Christian gospel is that death is not the end: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (I Cor. 15:55) With this confidence, Christians need not fear death. It is for these reasons that there has long been a thread of the Christian tradition focused on “the art of dying” and “a good death.”
In the secular world, there is a growing inducement to think about the end of one’s life, including in such things such as advance directives for medical care, estate planning for tax purposes, and whether you prefer cremation or burial. Within the church, one good and relatively easy pastoral practice is to encourage people to plan their funerals in advance, often well in advance. Some congregations and parishes have a form they encourage their members to fill out so the person can make it clear what readings or hymns they want at the service. This not only can take a great burden off of family members when the actual funeral comes around, it can also be a way of opening up conversations about the end of one’s life.
In Canada, we now live in a society in which it is legally permissible for some people to plan the circumstances of their own death, what we call medical aid in dying. Leaving aside the debates over that for now, I hope that Christians can model in this time a non-anxious and un-fearful approach to the end of life whenever it may come. To do so can be an incredible testimony to the hope and confidence our faith gives us. We may not all have a funeral with a major procession through central London but all of us will at some point come to the end of this earthly life. Even if we don’t find it “rather stimulating,” it is good pastoral practice to think about it now.