The author would like to dedicate this series to the blessed memory of Sigurd Lee (1926-2021), mentor, encourager, and dear friend.
In my younger and more vulnerable years, the old-timers gave me some good advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Ars Moriendi, Ars Vivendi,” they said, which means, “The art of dying is the art of living.” This deceptively simple phrase conceals many deep and abiding truths. And I suspect fresh lessons yet await me.
As a young man, I took it to mean the art of dying is the art of living; that is, to truly live well, we must be aware that we will die. Life is best lived mindful of life’s end. Therefore, “the more alive you are, the more you’re aware of death,” as a poet friend of mine was fond of saying.
But now, as I slouch ever nearer into middle-age, this advice has also begun to mean something else: the art of dying is the art of living; that is, living and dying well is not a given, but a craft, a cultivation of one’s soul, a truly blessed art.
And the art of living is the art of dying because, like any form of art, to live and die well requires practice, practice, practice. If one wishes to paint, then one must paint, and paint, and keep painting, and paint again.
Now, becoming an artist is optional. Anyone can be an artist if they cultivate creativity. But dying is not optional: It is appointed for people to die once and after this face the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). You are going to die. It’s not a question of “if,” but a matter of “when.” You are now irrecoverably closer to your death than you were when you began reading this sentence.
What is optional, however, is dying well. And while we all hope to die well, for many, that “hope” consists of some uncertain day in the ambiguous future when we will somehow be ready and prepared for it. But if we are not prepared for death every day, then we’ll never be prepared. We will always delay until tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. But God cautions us otherwise: “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you” (Luke 12:20).
If you’d like to paint well, then practice painting every day; if you’d like to die well, then practice, practice, practice! (The old joke goes: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! We might also ask How do you get to the graveyard? and receive the same answer.) After all, if you’ve never practiced painting, when you’re standing at the easel, you’ll paint very nervously and poorly. Likewise, if you’ve never practiced dying—if you’ve never rehearsed your dying thoughts or contemplated what you will say and think when you face death—then where will your dying thoughts take you?
But this begs the question: How can we rehearse for death? How can we make dying into a practiced art when we don’t know when or where or how it will come? The words of the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (ELH #335, v. 8) prescribe the best method for cultivating the art of dying, the art of living:
Be Thou my consolation, my Shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy Passion when My last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfold Thee — who dieth thus, dies well!
We practice dying and learn to die well—and so also, we live and learn to live well—by taking to heart the living and active Word of God. This is the Word’s purpose: But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name (John 20:31). Daily meditation on God’s Word is a daily rehearsal for death and a daily preparation for dying well. Why else are you reading God’s Word if not for eternal life? And when else do you have eternal life if you don’t already have it today?
Ultimately, both the art of living well and the art of dying well are cultivated from this sacred fact: You are a beloved creation of the divine Creator, forgiven of all your sins and redeemed by the blood of Christ. In life and in death and in eternity, we are all creations of divine artistry, living tapestries of God’s wondrous love and redemption: For we are God’s handiwork (Ephesians 2:10); You wove me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14); in Him we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28); and our Lord Jesus Christ is “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Thus, the closer we are to life in Christ, the more fully we exist and the more beautifully we live. This is for the simple reason that, by Word and Sacrament, through the work of our Redeemer we are drawn more closely to our Creator. As Simon Peter confessed when many of Christ’s disciples turned away from Him, “Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
God’s Word applied to you in your Baptism has already trained you how to die well: Or do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him by this baptism into His death, so that just as He was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too would also walk in a new life (Romans 6:3-4).
Thus, the art of dying is the art of living, and “whether we live or die we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living (Romans 14:9). The more we see our death as God sees it—not as our bitter end or final defeat or our return to formlessness and void, but instead as the portal to our truest life, our own eternal victory, the everlasting radiance of the living God’s gracious presence—then the more alive we are, the more truly and deeply and beautifully we live. And “who dieth thus, dies well!”
Rev. Jacob Kempfert