Whenever I order new funeral bulletins for Gloria Dei church, I wonder if I’m ordering my own. Likewise, I keep taped to my desk a post-it note scrawled with an antique adage: “Learn as if you’ll live forever. (For you will!) Live as if you’ll die tomorrow. (For you may!)” And alongside this rests a notecard with Scripture readings and hymns I’d like used in my funeral service. Death has been a topic of personal interest for me for nearly three decades, ever since I first started spending an inordinate amount of time exploring the cemetery within biking distance of my childhood home.
Suffice it to say, I’m not great at parties. However, these rituals of my somewhat morbid temperament are intended to serve a sanctified purpose, teaching me to number my days upon this earth aright in the blessed hope I may one day gain a heart of wisdom by doing so (Psalm 90:12). And I relate them in order to make plain my qualifications (or lack thereof) for writing an article on “How to Die” when I myself have no personal experience in the matter (yet).
I can propose the same practical encouragements that funeral directors and lawyers do: draw up a will, plan advanced directives, make prearrangements with your favorite funeral home. But a pastor is neither a litigator nor an undertaker. These plans may be helpful for the living, but even the best worldly preparations cannot properly prepare a soul for dying. I’ve seen enough dying to know that the process of death is hard enough as it is—but immeasurably more so when it arrives by surprise.
So the first step I can share in how to die is to prepare for dying and death while you are healthy and alive. It’s best to strengthen ourselves against suffering when we are not suffering—otherwise, suffering will blindside us and we won’t know how to respond to its ambush. The best way to prepare for a tornado is to run tornado drills under blue and sunny skies. And that’s the good news for every single one of us as we face the morbid uncertainties of dying and death: you have already taken this first step, perhaps without even realizing it.
To hear the Word of God is to take this first step of preparing for death. When we confess a Scriptural faith in Jesus, we must come face to face with death; it can’t be otherwise. First, our own death, a result of sin. But next, Christ’s death, which atoned for our sin and paid in full the price of death. And finally, death conquered and overcome by Christ’s resurrection from death, which is our own resurrection to eternal life through baptismal faith (Romans 6:3-5).
And again, it’s written: According to His great mercy, [God] has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5). If you have read and heard and marked this Word of God, then you have been prepared for death by God Himself, who with gentle, yearning grace desires you to obtain the outcome of your faith: the everlasting salvation of your soul (1 Peter 1:9).
If you want to learn how to die well, go to where that Word of life is given freely to you, spoken in your ears and placed before your eyes, washed over you, placed upon your lips. Hold fast daily to God’s Word, learn it, treasure it in your heart as your greatest hope in life and greatest strength in death. Remember daily your Baptism and the covenant of regeneration, sainthood, and everlasting life God has made with you in its Word-brimmed waters. Partake of the Lord’s Supper often, “proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26), in repentance over sin and assurance of forgiveness in Christ’s own body and blood.
The divine service we receive in church is not only strength for this life, but also a rehearsal for the moment of our blessed death. For this reason, I like to think of church as “death practice.” The Word of God you hear in church every Sunday prepares you for death by giving you the work of the Lord of Life. We repeat these words from Scripture and receive them for our everlasting blessing every Sunday, over and over, so that when we get to the place in our lives when we need them the most—when we go through suffering, pain, doubt, poverty, illness, when we come to our own death—then we have them at the ready. We’ve practiced exactly for this moment.
This is most evident at the conclusion of our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We sing the Nunc Dimittis, “now depart in peace,” the song Simeon sings after seeing the infant Jesus in the Temple: now I can not only leave this place in peace, but now I can leave this life in peace, I can die in peace, at peace with God through Christ Jesus, my Savior (Luke 2:29-31).
We leave divine service “ready to die,” for we are reconciled to God, at peace with Him through our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Lord’s Supper we have received a foretaste of what awaits us after death: the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. For a brief, timeless moment on earth, we have entered the eternity we even now possess as our inheritance by faith in Christ Jesus. We have passed the veil of time and space that makes this creation as a dark glass, a smudged mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12).
We have tasted the precious Food of Heaven and so our Savior, the Lamb of God standing at the center of the Throne, communes Himself with us, just as He truly is Immanuel, God with us. And in this meal, we also have communed with all the communion of saints: in a brief, blessed glimpse of eternity, we have joined with all those who have gone before us into everlasting life and partake of this marriage feast of heaven. We commune with the entire Church Triumphant, beyond all time and space, beyond all sorrow and grief, intimately joined to the glory of the resurrected and ascended Lord of heaven and earth, rejoicing in the presence of our Savior. We are given the blessed peace and consoling rest of heaven that is ours already and yet still awaits us in the fullness of its bliss.
Rev. Jacob Kempfert