Now covid-19 is forcing more to prepare for their own.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor will spend a portion of Good Friday planning her death. The Episcopal priest hopes to outline the music she would like to hear as her life comes to an end, the floral scent she hopes to smell and which of her 12 hand-pieced quilts she intends to hold.
Taylor is not ill, but at 68, she falls squarely into the age range especially vulnerable to covid-19. While the coronavirus has sickened people of every age, 80 percent of those who have died of covid-19 have been over 65.
So before Taylor speaks in virtual gatherings about the death and resurrection, she will add to her list of what she has already prepared: advanced care directives, who has power of attorney over her affairs, and plans to be buried — by her parents and sister.
“Few people are up for this conversation,” she said. “You won’t believe how many people walk away from me when I bring this up.”
Death is ever present in church sermons in the days and weeks that lead up to Easter. On Ash Wednesday, pastors remind parishioners, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On Good Friday, they preach the crucifixion of Jesus.
But even as many pastors lead funerals regularly, many admit they haven’t made end-of-life care decisions or planned for their funerals.
The Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said he has planned his funeral, but covid-19 has pushed mortality to the forefront. He and his wife have had to make plans for what happens if they get sick with the coronavirus.
“Holy week is about hardship and suffering and death, that Jesus didn’t avoid it and dared to die … to show what love looks like,” said Curry, 67. “This is not a sweet sugarcoated Easter.”
Three weeks ago, a diagnosis for pneumonia prompted the Rev. Tony Evans, a popular megachurch pastor based in Dallas, to think about the details of his own funeral. (He tested negative for covid-19.)
“It’s always hard to hear about death but no better time to deal with it than when it’s staring us in the face right now,” said Evans, 71.
People used to imagine their own deaths more because they witnessed death more regularly, said Lydia Dugdale, director of the Columbia Center for Clinical Medical Ethics and a physician who has spent the past few weeks caring for covid-19 patients in New York City.
And although the church offers comfort to those dealing with the death of a loved one, Dugdale said it hasn’t been at the forefront of helping people face death. In her forthcoming book “The Lost Art of Dying,” she points to a 2013 Harvard University study found that clergy knew little about palliative and other end of life care. It found that pastoral zeal to encourage faith in God enabled congregants to choose treatments associated with more suffering.
Dugdale said laypeople haven’t wanted to hear about death, and clergy have stopped preaching about it. “From my own experience, I can count on one hand the number of sermons I’ve heard on the need to prepare well for death,” she said.
Covid-19 has changed that for some. The Rev. Carrie Call, who provides spiritual care to pastors and parishioners in the Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ, said more pastors have been seeking information on end-of-life care and do-not-resuscitate orders in the weeks leading up to Easter this year.
“It’s ironic, because our faith lives and message are about triumph over death and resurrection, but we come face to face with it on this kind of scale, it’s really challenging,” she said. “The challenge for pastors is how they cope with that in their own lives while maintaining a sense of calm to help parishioners in their lives.”
The Rev. James Martin, an editor at-large at America magazine, said he and his fellow Jesuits all have made funeral plans, including the readings, the celebrant and the music.
He said it’s human and natural to fear death, especially now. The way that people have died alone or been unable to hold funerals during the spread of the coronavirus has been especially sad. Still, some people might see it as an opportunity to change their lives.
“To plan out your own death is not always morbid,” said Martin, 59. “It’s a way to look at the kind of life you want to lead.”
Timothy Keller, the retired pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, said he does not have his funeral planned. He said he thinks that should be up to his family. He has no burial plot, but he has his eye on a small graveyard in Manhattan surrounded by wire fence and car repair places, describing it as in the middle of things, unpretentious and easy to visit.
Keller said he is less afraid of death now at age 69 than when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 52.
“If we got the virus and died, as sad as it would be, we would both say, ‘We thought we had more to do on earth,’ and it’s God’s way of saying ‘Nope,’ ” he said. “That’s not a bad message for God to say, ‘You’ve done your work.’ ”
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