The church has a venerable tradition of preparing Christians for a “happy death.” Even those who live a pagan life want to die peacefully, surrounded by loved ones. How much more a Christian will want the same and much more. The idea is that we wish to die surrounded not only by our friends and relatives who have accompanied us through our journey in this world. We look forward to being blessed by the company of angels and saints.
When I was a young priest, a friend asked me to go with him to pray for his brother as he lay dying in a hospital in Los Angeles. We stood by the man’s bedside, all together, and I prayed prayers for the dying. Afterwards, my friend said, “Where did I get all those prayers?” I explained that it just comes naturally when you’re a priest.
A priest spends every day of his life preparing people to meet God and death is simply the ultimate encounter with God.
It’s good to talk about death from time to time and to talk about dying a “happy death.” Certainly, death, even for the holiest person, is far from being a pleasant experience. Jesus Christ himself had to endure one of the most painful and tormented deaths a man can experience, first having been scourged, then crowned with thorns.
The tradition of dying a happy death is not an attempt to gloss over the reality of suffering. Instead, it’s meant to help us understand why the message of the Gospel can be expressed in the words of St Paul to the Romans: “After this perishable nature has put on imperishability and this mortal nature has put on immortality, then will the words of scripture come true: Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?”
Nothing, not even death, can take away the peace of a Christian who is prepared to spend eternity in God’s kingdom. To use the famous words of St Francis of Assisi, death becomes “our sister” that is, a welcome companion who brings comfort by opening the gates of Paradise.
The secret of dying a happy death lies in being prepared to meet God. For some, this is the hard part. They have spent a lifetime ignoring God. They are not prepared. But for anyone who has always sought God’s mercy, dying a happy death is simply the final lap in the race. In either case, whatever the readiness of the one dying, be eager to help. The best thing you ever do for that friend or relative may be to help them die a happy death, accompanying them in prayer during their final moments.