Some ways of dying are better than others.

No one ever says, "I want to die alone in a hospital room," yet this is exactly how a great many people die in our day. As death comes into view most people express the desire to be kept "comfortable." The comfort they are thinking of is physical - they want ample doses of pain medication; they don't want to suffer too much. Most, though, have not lived lives that prepare them for the emotional and spiritual challenges that dying invariably presents.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule. In my work as a pastor I've known many people who lived out their dying days with a spirit of considerable peace. These people accepted death as a part of life, and neither they nor those attending their deaths experienced undue stress or trauma. I've also known people who died what are called "good deaths." Having cultivated close personal relationships across the course of their lives, these people were able to celebrate these relationships as they died. They made amends, forgave those who had wronged them in this life, said goodbye to their family and friends.

And then, every so often, I am privileged to witness someone die with remarkable and uplifting grace, an absolute inspiration to others. Adjectives like "peaceful" and "good" do not adequately describe the deaths of these rare individuals. These people die with their hearts full of love and with their spirits soaring. And in their dying they inspire others to a greater appreciation of all that is good in life.

I remember Claire Robbins, a woman who died singing her favorite hymn and reciting the Lord's Prayer. Her son, Jim, would later say of his mother's death, "it was the most beautiful moment of my life."

And I remember Nancy Martens, whose principal preoccupation in her last weeks of life was seeing to it that her husband learned to cook. Nancy received visitors from her deathbed as if she were serving them cookies and tea - in fact, on one occasion that I witnessed just a few days before her death, she did serve cookies and tea, while hosting a group of friends at her home. Nancy died with exactly the same reassurances for others that were characteristic of her in days of full health. "Everything will be just fine," she said over and over to her husband. The last thing her family remembers of her is her smile.

And I remember Barbara Ferry, who was so excited to see the effects her dying was having on her family. Her sons were talking to each other for the first time in years, and one of her grandsons had started to pray with her, something he had never done before. Betty believed that God was using her dying to accomplish miraculous things in the lives of others, and she clapped her hands in glee as she shared with me her plans for her funeral. It was as if she was planning to host her own birthday party and welcome her one hundred closest friends.

For many years I had been impressed by the faith and spiritual depth of people like Nancy and Claire and Barbara. I had shared their stories in sermons, compared notes about them with colleagues, and taken encouragement from them myself during times of grief and loss. For all those years, though, these people had puzzled me. The popular literature on death and dying is filled with talk of anger and remorse, guilt and forgiveness, acceptance and peace. But nowhere had anyone written about the happiness and holiness I had witnessed in my work with the dying. Versed in today's common wisdom about the end of life, and trained in contemporary methods of counseling, I could not account for the way the Nancys and Claires and Barbaras of the world lived and died.

Then one day, in the basement of a seminary library, I came across the stories of "happy deaths" that were popular in religious magazines in both England and America through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. ... I found myself especially captivated by an account published in England in the July and August, 1801 issues of The Arminian magazine. Written by an author who identified himself merely as "J. Wood," it told the story of a young woman he called, quite simply, "Mrs. Hunter," who died in London from an unidentified illness, on January 17, 1801 at the age of twenty-six. ...

Excerpted from Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death by John Fanestil Copyright © 2006 by John Fanestil. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death
John Fanestil
February 2006