This text received preliminary approval at Yearly Meeting Sessions in August 2019 for inclusion in Faith and Practice, the book that provides guidance for Friends in New England Yearly Meeting.
One rarely knows how death will arrive, either for a loved one or for oneself. Will death come through injury, illness, old age? Will it come quickly or slowly? Will there be warning? Each death is unique, and may not come at the end of a long life. Yet, each life, whether short or long, is whole and precious.
Early Friends recognized the passage into death as a liminal space in which a person might be particularly conscious of the Eternal. It was common for friends and family to gather to hear the testimony of the dying person. While this rarely happens in a formal way now, many still find deep openings sitting with a dying person whether in silence or in conversation, and even when they are with a person who is unconscious, distressed, or wrestling with great pain.
Keeping a sense of sanctity and care around death may present a challenge. Many aspects of the modern world distance us from death. Deaths are often outside the home, or far away geographically from loved ones. Certain aspects of death, such as medical care or funeral arrangements, are usually handled by others, leading to less engagement with the physical reality of death than in former times. At the same time, the still common experience of mass deaths from war, or other violence, may lead one to objectify death as remote and unreal.
What happens beyond life is a mystery, but Friends trust it is part of a universe sustained by Divine Love. Friends’ witness is that one may live in God’s realm in the present. As such, life choices are made not in hopes of heaven in an after-life, but on how one can embody that realm in the present.
Birth and death are parts of the natural order of creation. A given life span is only one fleeting but precious part of the life of the universe. What precedes and follows it becomes part of a larger spiritual context. Birth, life, and death are complementary parts of the cycle of life anchored in the Spirit.
Dying may happen in an instant or may be prolonged, but anticipation of dying may affect anyone. Until one directly faces death for oneself or for loved ones, there is much that is unknown. Sharing experiences of being with someone who is dying may help confront and allay some fears. It also offers the chance to explore spiritual questions together and to offer comfort to each other.
For those who are in the process of dying, it may be important for them to talk about their fears, regrets, or emotional and financial concerns for those being left behind. Sometimes there is vital work of forgiveness of oneself or others to be done. One may mourn what will be left undone, or that which will never now be experienced.
There can be a sense of release from fear when a person relinquishes the fight against disease and accepts their coming death, a release that leaves room to embrace the stretch of life that remains. Just as it is common to give thought to the birthing experience, some people give thought to the experiences surrounding death such as who might be present or choosing comforting music or readings.
When one is a patient, there may be medical choices that affect one’s dying and death. Not only are there choices of what course of treatment to accept, there are also choices to be made about whether to receive pain management only without looking for a cure, whether to enter hospice care, to refuse food and drink, or to choose physician assisted death in states where it is legal. In making these decisions, it is valuable to include family and friends, and perhaps a clearness process with members of the meeting. Any decision made by the patient inevitably affects others who are close.
When dying happens over a period of time, support for caregivers is as important as care for the one who is dying. Those providing care are likely to have major responsibilities for physical needs, overseeing medical and financial decision-making, coordinating communication with family and friends, and providing emotional support. All these require much energy and stamina. At the same time the caregivers may be experiencing emotional turmoil. It is normal to swing between hope and fear as symptoms change, to feel drained and tired, resentful, scared, angry, overwhelmed or sad as well as to feel tender and loving. Caregivers may experience frustration, physical revulsion, and rage against what feels like an injustice. As they provide support, caregivers, in turn, need to receive support.
While accompanying some people as they die may prove inspiring and reassuring, that is by no means always the case. Staying present to the person may be challenging when the manner of death is difficult. There may be anger or even horror, and one may profoundly disagree with the dying person’s choices. Remember the vital importance of dependence on the Spirit for guidance, comfort, and strength beyond one’s own resources.
While it is helpful to all involved to plan and make decisions, death can happen in unexpected ways over which one has no control, and for which there has been no preparation. Accidental death, violent death, miscarriage, death of a child at any age, and death by suicide all challenge one’s ability to accept and understand. One’s faith as well may be sorely tested. Not only the individuals involved, but the whole meeting may need to process and grieve together.
At times there are difficult decisions to make about death: for example, whether or not to terminate an unplanned or complicated pregnancy, whether to end one’s own medical treatment, or whether to stop a person’s life support. Friends may want to gather with a clearness committee for discernment at such times.
Taking the time for advance planning, including planning for costs, when one is still in good health is an act of love for those who will be left behind. It allows for careful consideration of one’s own wishes, as well as time for conversation with loved ones about what they need and want. It also relieves loved ones of worry about details when grief is fresh and may be overwhelming. Discussing choices surrounding death with family members helps avoid later struggles and disagreements. Making sure that those responsible know the whereabouts of important information will facilitate what they need to do. Meetings may offer to keep copies of members’ final choices on file at the meetinghouse.
Formal documentation may include advance directives, a will, a list of important contacts, the location of personal documents and passwords, a draft obituary, plans for a memorial service, and choices concerning type of burial, organ donation, possible donation of the body for research, and other specifics about treatment of the body. Organizing one’s papers and possessions while one is able is a gift to all concerned. In addition, Friends may wish to consider writing ethical wills to leave a legacy of those non-material things that were important to their lives, such as their spiritual beliefs, guiding principles, and cherished family stories. (See Appendices 7A and 7B.)
When death is anticipated, grief begins early as those who love and care for someone watch the progress of the illness, perhaps witness pain and suffering, and realize their loss has already begun. While death involves grieving by family and friends, depending on circumstances, the grief may be mixed with gratitude, a sense of completion and rightness, or a sense that something sacramental has happened. It is also possible that the dying and the death will be traumatic, and there will be need for loving friends and family to actively support the bereaved. Sudden or violent death can pose further challenges, beginning with a period of shock during which the bereaved person’s basic needs must be addressed.
Whatever the circumstances, death can be a complex and stressful time for families, and negotiating family expectations and sensitivities can benefit from spiritual support. This is especially important when a bereaved person has been unable to celebrate the life of their loved one with others, either because of geographical distance, estrangement, or the decision not to hold any kind of funeral or memorial service.
Grief is a process of healing. It is not linear, even though it has stages, and it has no time limit. The acute pain may dissipate, but it may resurface at unexpected intervals. Other feelings may arise: anger, regrets, and unresolved issues. Loss of a loved one changes the shape of one’s world, even when the loss has been foreseen and comes at an expected time. There may be a permanent sense of absence. Not only one’s feelings, but one’s very sense of identity and one’s roles in life may change. There is an alchemy involved in entering fully into grief, a process whereby feelings of despair and sorrow are accepted, fully experienced and transformed.
Preparing for the eventuality of illness, aging, dying, and death of oneself or one’s loved ones is eased by an open flow of communication and exploration of these topics before such events occur. The meeting, or a memorial committee, can encourage advance decision-making by holding discussions on such topics as durable power of attorney, advance directives, eldercare, hospice, wills, and burial options, and by keeping a file of Friends’ final wishes as described above. This helps to relieve much stress when death occurs. When the meeting community is prepared and engaged, it can be a meaningful source of solace, comfort, and strength for a dying person, caregivers, and others affected by a death. As members of the meeting share this experience, they may grow in their own spiritual understandings of death and in their capacity to meet difficult experiences with love. Many meetings have regularly scheduled times to share the joys and sorrows of the community, inviting prayer and practical assistance. Meetings can also offer support to the dying as well as the bereaved with a clearness or support committee. (See Pastoral Care section.) As with all pastoral care, it is important for the meeting to gauge the scope of its ability to provide assistance.
Should a cause of death present particular challenges to the meeting, such as a death by violence, additional support for the community may be needed from Friends beyond the monthly meeting. At times, a number of meetings may need to uphold one another through times of grief following tragedies in the wider world, such as mass shootings or catastrophic events such as earthquakes. They may wish to join with other faith communities in mourning such events.
At the time of death, Friends should assist the family in whatever ways they can, such as help with children, with food or housework, or with hospitality for visiting relatives. If prior planning has not been done, the meeting may be asked to assist a family in making decisions regarding disposition of their loved one’s body and, if there is no family, consider doing this service for the deceased Friend. When choosing an alternative to the services of a professional funeral director (in states where this is legal) it is very helpful to have the support and assistance of one’s community.
If the meeting has a memorial or burial committee, it should be familiar with the legal requirements, which vary from state to state, and be ready to help Friends follow the burial protocols with simplicity and dignity, and to assist in filing the appropriate paperwork.
Memorial Minutes and Memorial Meetings
Memorial minutes and memorial meetings are valued spiritual practices of Friends. The memorial minute testifies to the grace of God as revealed in the life of a Friend, while the memorial meeting for worship is a time to give thanks for that grace. The minute recounts the life, distinctive qualities and contributions of the Friend who has died. It may include excerpts from an individual’s pre-written spiritual autobiography or other writings. When there is time for it to be written before the memorial meeting, parts of it may be read aloud during the worship. Often it is written later and may reflect ministry that has arisen in the memorial meeting.
While early Friends remembered the deceased during a regular meeting for worship, it is more common now to schedule a separate time. It is important to be aware of the needs both of the family and of the meeting, especially if the family is not acquainted with Quaker forms of worship. In some instances two services may be held to accommodate both the family and the meeting. Members are encouraged to attend a memorial meeting whether or not the person who died is someone they knew well. Honoring a life in this way may help family members and the meeting through this difficult time of transition. (See Appendices 7C, 7D, and 7E for guidance on writing memorial minutes and conducting memorial meetings.)
Early Friends followed simple burial practices and often had no grave markers. Many options are available today with or without the services of a funeral industry professional. Some meetings have a burial ground, or a memorial garden for cremated remains, and some have a standing burial committee to help guide families through the burial and memorial process.
They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies. Nor can spirits ever be divided, that love and live in the same divine principle, the root and record of their friendship. If absence be not death, neither is theirs. Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.” (William Penn, 1693)
The night before landing in Liverpool I awoke in my berth with a strange sense of trouble and sadness. As I lay wondering what it meant, I felt myself invaded by a Presence and held in Everlasting Arms. It was the most extraordinary experience I had ever had. But I had no intimation that anything was happening to Lowell. When we landed in Liverpool a cable informed me that he was desperately ill, and a second cable, in answer to one from me, brought the dreadful news that he was gone. When the news reached my friend John Wilhelm Rowntree, he experienced a profound sense of Divine Presence enfolding him and me, and his comfort and love were an immense help to me in my trial…
I know now, as I look back across the years, that nothing has carried me up into the life of God, or done more to open out the infinite meaning of love, than the fact that love can span this break of separation, can pass beyond the visible and hold right on across the chasm. The mystic union has not broken and knows no end. (Rufus Jones, 1947)
Facing the possibility of death, I saw that I did not fear it. Why should I? Since life carries death with it like a seed, since this is normal, what is there to fear? The gift of life is inseparably united to the promise of death: on no other terms is life ever given. And death is a promise rather than a threat, for who would want to continue a life that is worn out? (Bradford Smith, 1965)
Instead, Quakers, quietly placing their faith in the God they worshipped to handle all that happens after human death, concentrated their energy and their faith on the living of a holy life. For as Fox says repeatedly,... our task, our responsibility is to make this present life holy, consecrated, a temple of the living God, the indwelling Christ. This gives to us the power to be the people of our God, to master and conquer temptation, to order our lives by the divine principles steadily revealed to us. (Cecil E. Hinshaw, 1979)
[The] loss of one’s partner can be one of the severest forms of psychological stress. The emotions can be quite overwhelming. Some say it feels like insanity…
Slowly life can be found to have meaning again, and at the heart of that meaning lies the word ’love’. ‘Growth into true life,’ wrote one widow, ‘lies in love of one another. We have the choice of letting grief shadow our lives or growing from it.’ This healing love is beyond us and within us and continually seeks us out. Those whose privilege it has been to come right through grief know this in a deep and personal way. They can in their turn reach out to others in distress. The true meaning of the word ‘compassion’ is ‘suffering together with someone’. Perhaps they have discovered for themselves that the sense of the absence of God which came with the depression made them know how much they need God. (Diana Lampen, 1979)
Can we face up to the fact of death? Can we prepare ourselves in some measure for dying? I feel I have to try and tell you of my experience and the understanding it brought me—however personal and limited. From the closeness of my own dying, I know God is. Death is not a negation of life but complements it: however terrible the actual dying, life and death are both parts of the whole and that wholeness is in God. I still fight the conventional words of ‘resurrection and life everlasting’ but I know that after Jesus died the overwhelming certainty of his presence released his disciples from fear. I believe eternal life is in each moment of life, here and now; the real tragedy is not how or when we die but if we do not live the life we are given to our full potential. (Jenifer Faulkner, 1982)
So I put the books down. I thought back over the past few days as my father lay dying. And there I saw my faith. My father was surrounded by his family: his three daughters, his brother and sister, and his best friend of 37 years. He was never alone. Even as he began to fade in and out, we were present on his behalf and holding him in the Light. Some people prayed; others held his hand. It didn’t matter what we did, because we all loved… and God was with us… This was going to be a sad time, horribly sad, but it should not be horrible. And it wasn’t; instead, it was filled with a kind of light I had never experienced before: somber and soft. … When my father slipped from this world, the entire family gathered around him. In retrospect, it strikes me how much this process was like a meeting for worship. In the silence, his brother, sister, and best friend told stories about his life. We opened ourselves up to our memories, and our sorrow. We cried but we also laughed. It was our way of holding him in the light as he began his journey. I also think it was our way of gathering ourselves and finding the light in our sorrow. (Shannon Zimmerman, 2017)
“The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind -,” Dickinson wrote. Grief is just as dazzling. It is a madness that makes divinest sense. The truths it reveals cannot be known all at once; they must be seen on the slant of time.
One of the most powerful truths I learned was that the loftiest part of myself was always on duty. It was present despite the chaos, within the chaos. Present wherever I wandered, whatever I found: snake or squirrel, bee or bone, rock or razor.
In the place I call North, I felt found, rescued, met, known, led, righted, given to, bestowed upon, inspired – all words claimed by religious tradition. What do you call this place? What is its center? For me, North is the soul’s magnetic pole; the divine is its compass, nothing less. (Patricia McKernon Runkle, 2017)
Not Knowing what to expect
I would never pack light
For trips to the West
Shoes were the worst;
Of course I’d want my work boots
Because that is who I am
But I’d also want my Bean
Boots, in case of mud.
And some slip-ons for around the house
I’d want some shoes easy to
Put on and take off in the
Airport (pack my pocketknife in the luggage)
Not knowing what to expect
I’d want to pack my computer and some music
And a book of puzzles in carryon
There’s a trip I’ll be taking soon
Without an overhead bin I need to
Unpack. I won’t be able to take anything with me.
Still, not knowing what to expect
It’s hard to pack light
For a trip to the unknown. (Edward Baker, written April 2017, six months before his death)
Though she lived in a great deal of pain her last year, she was unlikely to mention it except in passing. She made [an] effort to be present to people and to the Meeting whenever she could manage it. Brian was her constant and loving help-meet.
Two months before she died, Betty made the decision to enter hospice, and once her decision was made and shared, she lived into it with openness, humility and grace, and one could even say hospitality.
“Welcome what is” released her into all that life was to her at the moment: all the love and all the pain, living in what Friend Bill Taber called “The cross of joy.” (Excerpt from memorial minute for Elizabeth Poynton, Worcester Meeting, 2019)
As someone who carried and gave birth to my child, shepherded my mother through ALS and her death, and has sat with many families grieving the loss of a child to suicide, gun violence, or other sudden deaths, I know there is not always grace, there is not always mercy, and things don’t go as we would want. There is always, however, our capacity to endure, to be present, and to draw on God’s strength when we feel ourselves past the point of endurance and past our capacity to be present.
So many times…. I wanted to stop, to check out, to tune out, to walk away. The pain—physical and emotional—was too much. In each case, I chose to stay present. It was hard and I often questioned where God was at all, particularly when a young person I loved had been gunned down. The anger and horror and all-consuming rage I have felt at times were bigger, in those moments, for me, than my experiences of God.
When I fought to maintain my mother’s comfort as her organs were rupturing in a medical system that had forgotten to treat her like a person, when I tried to pump life back into the dead body of my student, when I stood over my 3-day old child in the NICU, willing him to live, the only grace I was given was that I was able to stay present to my mother, my student, and my child. I felt everything I was feeling and stayed present. Only one of those three people is still alive and I didn’t walk out of those experiences unscathed. To the best of my ability to understand it, God was with me in supporting me to be present to what was happening, in all its horror, and that that presence is what allows me to heal after each of these experiences. I have not returned to the person I was before these moments, but, for the most part, I have been able to release the all-consuming fear and rage and hold those moments for what they were – horrible, traumatic, sad, and life-altering.
We carry trauma and grief in our bodies, no matter what sense our minds and psyches make of it. I have worked with enough survivors to know that sometimes the trauma is so great, that disassociating is the way our beings can best survive the horror we endure. And I also know that people who can identify even one person with whom they can talk about their trauma, are far more likely to heal. My understanding of this is also about presence - that when we bear witness to another’s pain, we shift some of that pain and offer a space for healing.
I do not know what of my presence my mother and student could feel or know. We can not always create the reality we want for each other; we can always be present to the reality another is facing. This is one of the purest ways I know to ‘answer that of God in everyone.’ It is not about having an answer or solution, but simply being there, and being there fully. (Birth, death, and other big hard things. Lisa Graustein, personal communication, January 2019)
Advices and Queries
Advices for Meetings
- Encourage one another to acknowledge the reality of death and come to a greater understanding of dying.
- Remember the power, strength and comfort of both collective and individual prayer for those who are dying or who are bereaved.
- Support those going through the process of dying, death and grieving. Help them to realize and express their wishes for the memorial meeting. Be sensitive to the needs of family, friends, and the meeting.
- At times the need of the dying person for privacy conflicts with the caregivers’ and the family’s need for support. Be mindful of the ways information is shared within the meeting. Use discretion and discernment.
- Make resources available on the practical, emotional and spiritual aspects of dying, death, and bereavement.
- Be mindful of the ongoing support needed for those whose needs may be invisible: the very ill who are unable to come to meeting, caregivers, and those grieving.
Advices for individuals
- Remember that death is an integral part of the fabric of life rather than an evil to be avoided at all costs. God is ever present.
- Prepare for the end of life while you are able. Remember that infirmity and death can come unexpectedly. Advance planning is a gift to those left behind.
- Advance planning is particularly important when care of dependent children needs to be considered.
- Do not burden your heirs with decisions about possessions that could have been made through thoughtful preparation.
- Clearly stated wishes regarding dispersal of property, heirlooms, and other family treasures may help to avoid pain and conflict.
- Be aware that grieving is normal, is painful, and has no defined time limit. Be open to God’s love and the love of Friends, knowing that there are those willing to walk with you. When it is another’s turn to grieve, remember to support that person in whatever ways are helpful, with imagination and care.
- Stay close to the Inward Guide as you navigate your own and family expectations and sensibilities around death.
- Make a regular practice of prayer and dependence on the Divine so that in times of urgent need, you may more easily find your way to the embrace of the Spirit.
- When visiting a person who is dying, or a person who is grieving, take care to keep the focus on that person, rather than on one’s own feelings and responses to the person’s condition. Be equally careful when speaking to that person’s family or caregivers.
Although Queries may often be answered with a simple affirmative or negative, it is vital to ask corollary questions such as “why”, “how”, or “when”. A qualified answer arising from introspection is more meaningful and constructive than an uncritical “yes” or “no” (North Carolina Yearly Meeting [Conservative], 1983)
Queries for Meetings:
- How does the meeting invite learning about, discussion of, and preparation for end-of-life issues, at both a practical and a spiritual level?
- Does the meeting want to offer a place to file final choices for its members or biographical material which might be useful in preparing memorial minutes?
- How might the meeting support individuals, families, and the meeting as a whole, as each grieves, not only in the near future, but over time?
- When death happens in a disturbing way, is the meeting a place where Friends know they can express difficult emotions and share together as needed?
- Has the meeting considered the need for a burial/memorial committee to stay current with the state laws and with the choices available? If the meeting has a burial ground, does it have clear guidelines for its use and an accurate record of who is interred? (See Appendix 7G)
- Has the meeting considered whether it is able to support those considering options that will hasten death?
Queries for Individuals
- Am I fearful of death, or of dying, and how might these fears be faced?
- How does my faith inform my understanding of death? Am I living in the Eternal?
- What insight and wisdom do I have to pass on to the next generation?
- Do I know what to do when the death of a loved one occurs? Am I prepared to support the choices they make?
- Do I know that I need not be alone in grief, and that I might share it with others? Am I willing to seek support when I need it?
- Am I willing to be present to other Friends when they are grieving, to offer practical and spiritual support, making myself available as needed or wanted?
 Palliative Care: Care that focuses on relieving the symptoms, pain and stress of serious illness. A patient does not need to be terminal to receive palliative care. Palliative care patients often continue full treatment for their illness while in a palliative care program.
 Hospice Care: Terminal illness care at home or in a hospice facility. Care is focused on alleviating pain and helping patients prepare for the end of life. Instead of treating the illness, hospice nurses and other medical professionals work to ensure the patient’s physical comfort and emotional peace. Hospice is designed to minimize medical intrusion and maximize a patient’s ability to enjoy what time he or she has left.
 VSED: Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking, an intentional decision to stop drinking liquids and eating food for the specific purpose of causing death. It causes death by dehydration, usually within 7 to 14 days. While it may not require governmental action or physicians’ authorization, care should be taken to consult the specific laws of one’s state.
 PAD: Physician Assisted Death, the practice where a physician prescribes a potentially lethal medication to a terminally ill, suffering patient at their request that they can take (or not) at a time of their own choosing to end their life.
 If a death occurs outside of a hospice or medical setting, particularly if unexpected or unattended, it needs to be reported immediately.