Pastors are around death and dying a lot. I don’t spend as much time in hospitals as I did during my chaplaincy rounds, but I’m still no stranger to them.
But here’s the thing: Americans are bad at talking about death. Culturally we’re quite terrible at it. We ignore it, medicate it, and–above all–pretend it will never happen to us or anyone close to us. Notes theologian Stanley Hauerwas, ““We’re a society that rarely acknowledges death before it happens.”
In the church we’re often not much better. We shy away from the word funeral, preferring instead “a celebration of life.” We use euphemistic words–passed on, is no longer with us–instead of the simple, true death.
Yet Christians are called to die daily. To lay down our lives for our friends, for our savior. When it comes right down to it, at the end of our lives we should be the best die-ers ever. Hauerwas puts it this way: “Christianity is ongoing training in dying early.”
When I come across a book on death and dying that helps me talk about it with parishioners, face it together with less fear, and prepare, even now, for my own death, I absolutely have to share it.
J. Dana Trent’s Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life is a delight. Which is a funny thing to say about a book that describes her hospice chaplaincy as well as her mother’s dying and father’s deaths in detail. Yet from the cover (sprinkles!) to the honesty of her stories of doubt, faith, interfaith relationships, and the intimate portraits of the moments before death, this book finds a way to accept death as a part of life.
Trent never welcomes death as a friend. It is always tragic, painful, aching, and harrowing. She writes in detail of the pain she felt in coming to terms with her estranged father’s death. But at the same time, she describes the pain of trying to stave death off at all costs, particularly for those who are terminally ill and want to forgo potentially devastating and painful life-saving measures.
“The tubes were gone,” she writes, in a chapter called The Death Chaplain. “She was surrounded by people caring for her. And Lily smiled the widest smile I’d seen her smile since she arrived” (35).
This book brought me to tears more than once, and it had me laughing out loud–which is not my usual with books in general, much less books about death.
While this isn’t a Christian apologetic for death, heaven, and the afterlife (for a great one of those, check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope), it is a deeply moving story of Trent’s own experiences with death, dying, and the doubt that so easily accompanies them. There are also practical tips for having “the conversation” around end-of-life care, and why having it sooner rather than later is nearly always the right thing to do.
An additional strength in Dessert First is Trent’s candid reflections on her interfaith relationship with her husband, Fred, who is Hindu, and how their different views on the afterlife shape their marriage and their questions. For anyone looking for interfaith conversations around death and dying, this is a helpful resource in learning to listen to, learn about, and respect the faiths of others while finding even deeper roots in our own.
If you’ve recently lost a loved one and are facing grief, need to begin coming to terms with your own mortality, or if you simply want to get better at these types of conversations, this is a great read. If you hate thinking about death, this is a gentle, approachable way to begin. And if you love a raw, honest, pulls-no-punches story, this one will grip you from page one.
Plus, sprinkles. Amirite?