During seminary, I was a student chaplain at a Masonic home. An old guy always sat in the back, and before I ever said a word, he called out, “How old was Moses when he died?” This man had been asking this question for about 20 years.
In Deuteronomy 34:7 we read that Moses lived to be 120 years old. That’s a good long life. But what catches my eye more is the notation that “his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.”
Moses didn’t get to go with God’s people into the promised land, but he had a good death.
We all envision that’s how we’ll die—we’ll live a full, active life, and then one day we won’t wake up.
The truth, though, is that only happens to about 15 percent of people. Another 15 percent will live well but have a stroke or heart attack and not fully recover. They’ll have another episode, recover slightly, and then die. The rest of us—70 percent—will decline with a sort of squiggly, dwindling line marking lower and lower levels of health. In all, it will take eight to ten years to die.
Early in my practice in Memphis, I treated a man with AIDS. In those days we didn’t have the pharmaceuticals available now, but this man didn’t even want to take the ones we had. He had contracted the virus in an earlier stage of life when he took drugs and was promiscuous. That wasn’t who he was anymore, but the disease caught up with him. While he could have gotten medication through a public assistance program, he didn’t want anyone to know he had AIDS. Instead he told people he had terminal cancer, and fear that God would not forgive him haunted him until the night he died without telling the truth to anyone close to him.
Sadly, his shame kept him both from the embracing support of people who loved him and from facing death certain that he was beloved by God.
I talk about dying well from time to time because preparing to die well is part of living well. We are all going to die. Some of us go through life acting as if we don’t believe that, so we don’t prepare to die well. But understanding that death is part of our human existence helps us look for richness and meaning in our lives and lets love and joy carry us closer to God even in death.
I love the words of William Sloane Coffin in his book Credo. “The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death and as early as possible. For death is an event that embraces all our lives. The only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity and compassion. And there’s no need at the close of day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that good night.”