The internet is full of articles on dying well. Primarily, what is meant by dying well is having a "good death,"—dying with one's affairs in order, without needless physical suffering, and surrounded by loved ones. This kind of good death happens when this world's problems (pain, loneliness, etc.) are alleviated at the end of one's life.
Aiming for this kind of good death is an honorable objective. I know from my experience caring for a dying loved one that having adequate pain medications, organized finances, and the presence of family and close friends is a blessing to someone facing death.
But when the Puritans spoke of dying well, they were looking beyond the physical realm to the spiritual one. For them, to die well was to die in a state of peace with God, anticipating the joy of being forever with Christ. Dying was something they prepared for by living what J. I. Packer calls "the forward-tilted life"—a life lived with the mind focused on "the ultimate destination."1
In his book Keeping the Heart, the Puritan John Flavel lists five truths for dying well. He calls them "considerations calculated to help the people of God . . . keep their hearts loose from all earthly objects, and cheerfully willing to die."
First, he writes, consider that "death is harmless to the people of God." Yes, death is unnatural: the process of dying can be painful, and in death we will be temporarily separated from our body and from those we love. But Flavel reminds us that for the believer, death will not be a precursor to God's wrath, but the gateway to heaven. "Why," he asks, "should you be afraid?"
Second, bear in mind that "death is necessary to fit [us] for the full enjoyment of God." Paul says "while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord," but once we leave our body behind in death, we will be "at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). The way into the fullness of Christ's presence is through the doorway of death.
Third, Flavel writes, "the happiness of heaven commences immediately after death." Yes, we will wait until the resurrection for our glorified bodies, but we will immediately be with Christ, which, Paul reminds us, "is far better" than the life we have now (Philippians 1:23).
Fourth, remember that "by death, God often removes his people out of the way of great troubles and temptations." In this sin-cursed world, every life has its share of difficulties: our bodies fail; we suffer losses; we constantly struggle with sin. Death is God's way of releasing us from "innumerable evils and burdens which are inseparable from the present state."
And last, trust that "God can accomplish by other hands what you desire to do further here." The God who "upholds the widow and the fatherless" (Psalm 146:9) can be trusted with all of our unfinished business.
Learning from the Puritans
I lived the the first forty years of my life in material comfort, untouched by serious illness or death—and that isn't unusual. Our circumstances allow us to ignore death's reality until something catastrophic happens, and then we are caught off guard, spiritually unprepared to be at peace in the face of death.
The Puritans, on the other hand, lived in death's shadow. They frequently experienced physical suffering, hardship, and the early deaths of family members and friends. These constant reminders of the inevitability of death moved them to spiritually prepare themselves for it. Thinking about their "ultimate destination" was more natural for them than it is for us.
But death is as inevitable for us as it was for them. If we're wise, we'll prepare for it, too.
Puritans like Flavel can help us learn how to live a "forward-tilted life"—a life focused on the joy of being forever with the Lord.
1Puritan Portraits by J. I. Packer, page 89.