Four Details for Dying Well

As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need a big-picture perspective. Yesterday dad told me he was unable to make decisions about mom’s funeral service. He asked the family to handle the details. I told him that was fine. He needed to be doing only two things: 1) process his emotions and 2) process his faith – in whom he was trusting. That’s the big picture.

Nevertheless, when we die our loved ones will be busy. Since my mother’s death Monday night, I’ve recognized four simple tasks we can do before we die which will help our family when we’re gone. My mother did some of them. Others she did not.

  1. Get a will. This is the single most important detail for dying well. If you die without a will, your family will have to do a lot more work to settle your estate. It will be messier and cost them more money. You need a will whether or not you are wealthy. If you don’t have a will, get one now. If you can’t afford a lawyer, find a friend with a computer and buy inexpensive software to write your will. It won’t cost much and it won’t take long. It won’t matter to you, but it will matter to your family. Copies don’t count. It must be an original. Mom had a will and she had told us exactly where she kept the original document. Thanks, Mom!
  2. Complete a planning book. The funeral director will want immediate information, beginning with vital statistics. You might know a lot of the data from memory, but don’t trust your memory. It’s amazing how much we “know” that isn’t true. This information is going to become the official record. Get it right. Mom had a planning book. It wasn’t completely filled out, but it really helped. It was the primary source for writing her obituary. Mom included some of her wishes regarding her funeral. The main problem was that we didn’t know where it was. My sisters looked for an hour or two before they found it. I don’t know what we would have done without it. Get a funeral planning book and fill it out. You can get one online or from a funeral director. Fill it out and tell your family where it is. Mom also kept an up-to-date address book, so we were able to contact distant relatives and old friends. A few numbers didn’t work, but it was a helpful resource. Thanks, Mom!
  3. Collect the photos. Most funerals now include a display of pictures. If you don’t create a photo collection for your funeral, your family will have to do it at the worst possible time. This was something Mom didn’t do, even though she once had a ton of pictures. Actually, she made it worse a few years ago by giving each of us a photo album of our childhood. Mom didn’t have those photos afterward. Naturally, we didn’t have them with us when we rushed to her bedside. Therefore, we didn’t have many family pictures when we needed them for her funeral. When we were collecting pictures, twenty years were largely missing from mom’s parenting years. We managed to patch something together, but there was more stress than necessary. Collect your photos. Tell your family where they are. Even better, get digital copies.
  4. Keep some cash. When you die, all your financial accounts will be frozen immediately. It will take a minimum of two or three days for the paperwork to reactivate your accounts. But your family will need money. In our case, dad went to the bank and withdrew money only hours before mom died. That helped with immediate expenses like meals at a restaurant. He couldn’t even use his credit card. That’s why he needed cash. Funeral expenses are yet to be paid, but dad has set aside savings for that. To die well, don’t leave your family with the expense of your funeral. It may cost them more than you expect. Save long-term for the funeral. Keep some short-term cash.

When the pastor arrived to plan the funeral service, Dad stepped up to the plate despite his grief. He joined the meeting and contributed to the discussion. I think it was a helpful experience. I give him credit for courage and courtesy. He had asked to be excused, but when the time came, he stepped up with grace. It was a good family moment.



For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

Mom died just a few minutes before midnight last night. She has completed her sojourn. She now walks by sight, not by faith. It is well with her soul.

The doctor was right yesterday morning. It did turn out to be mom’s special day. About 4 p.m. Carol and I were alone with her when Carol noticed that she seemed to be awake. These moments would last only a few seconds, so Carol quickly suggested that I read Scripture and pray with her again. I read Joshua 24:15 and reminded mom about her plaque with that verse. She nodded weakly. I told mom that for her, that verse was more than a plaque, it was a proclamation. It was a promise mom kept.

Back on Saturday when we arrived at her hospice room, I told mom she had lived her life well and had two remaining tasks. The first was to meet her eighth great-grandchild, James Walter Clevenger. She performed that assignment admirably to our joy and delight. I might add that James played his role perfectly, as well. Mom’s second task was to blaze the trail of faith to the end of life and model for her family how to die well. Usually that task is given to dads. Husbands die first in a majority of marriages. But in this marriage, that responsibility was given to mom. She was doing her final task very well.

After Scripture and prayer yesterday afternoon, mom was still awake. So I took the opportunity to tell her we thought she still had some time left. Carol and I might return to Minnesota. I told her that dad, Pam and Brenda would take good care of her. Would it be OK if Carol and I returned to Minnesota?

Mom croaked, “Yes!” in a loud, clear, deep tone that sounded almost like her normal voice. She was giving me mother’s permission for the final time. Perhaps she was also giving herself permission to die.

Within a few minutes, her condition deteriorated significantly. Her breathing became much more shallow and irregular. At 4:30 p.m. we called in the rest of the family, sang hymns for mom, and watched as death crept nearer. Dad sat silently and held mom’s hand. We all had one question, “How long?” Pam and Warren were sitting attentively with mom when she quietly passed into the Lord’s presence.

Barbara Bush, one of the world’s most prominent women, recently died. She is reported to have been a great woman of faith who loved Jesus and anticipated heaven. I marvel that the transcendent God who directs with the flick of his finger the course of the universe – or multiverse, if you prefer – would stoop in his imminence to notice Barbara Bush. I marvel even more that this same God embraced an obscure, unknown, elderly woman lying unnoticed by the world in a hospice bed and carried her into his presence. More astounding yet is that this same heavenly Father offers the same invitation to anyone who will respond to him in faith. If God’s transcendent power is unspeakable, his unmatched imminent grace can only be called “amazing.” The superlatives of language have been exhausted before they plumb the depths of God’s divine attributes. No wonder the great Apostle John concluded his book of the Revelation with, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.”

      And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
     The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
     The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
     Even so, it is well with my soul.
                                                 Horatio G. Spafford, 1873


“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:6-8

When we left Minnesota last Friday, the air was cold and the ground was snow covered. But here in Ohio, it’s spring. The air is much warmer. Many flowers are in full bloom. The lawn service mowed dad’s grass yesterday; it was quite shaggy.

The scene is different in room 7 at the hospice house. It’s not spring here. Quite the opposite. Mom has declined like flowers fade and grass withers. Her breathing has become labored again. Her mouth is dry. Mom has faintly nodded an occasional response to our questions, but she is declining. She is aware for only a few seconds at a time. This morning the doctor said today could be her day, but we think she could linger a while longer. Our anticipation that she might rally is gone. She is in God’s hands.

There have been no more conversations like the ones we had with mom on Saturday. But we still have had some mutual interaction. Saturday Cara held up baby James, who squealed in delight at his great-grandma. Mom squealed back a nearly identical sound at a much deeper pitch. It was a great moment. And a fleeting one. Yesterday Cara held him up for her again. Mom did not squeal this time. But she smiled in recognition and appreciation. It was enough.

Once again, we wait. But we’re not waiting for death. We’re waiting on God.


“In my Father’s house are many rooms…. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2.

This morning mom is weaker. There was some recognition and a big smile for little James, the great-grandson she met for the first time yesterday.

Mom agreed to Scripure and prayer, but she fell asleep during my explanation of John 14:1-7. I’m used to people dozing during my sermons, but they usually wake up after the prayer. Mom is still sleeping and didn’t wake up when our oldest son Nathan arrived.

This looks like a retreat to follow yesterday’s rally. We hope – and expect – that she will awaken to interact with Nathan.

There are 11 people in the room now. Once again, for now, we wait.


”As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15

My mom is in a race to heaven. Her first words to me today were “I’m ready.” I replied, as always, that it isn’t our call. Our times are in God’s hands (Psalm 31:15).

Yesterday mom was barely responsive. She spoke hardly a word all day. Today she has rallied. Maybe our arrival helped. After I read a Psalm to her, she started to recite Joshua 24:15.

A short while later, she began to rally even more. “What if this takes a long time? What if I have to go to a nursing home?” She asked.

“You’re welcome to rally,” I told her. “Then we’ll get more time with you.”

Time is uncertain, yet determined, this side of eternity. It’s not fate. Nor is it chance. The future is determined by the providence of God, who exists in eternity beyond time. God is both transcendent and imminent. He is outside of creation (“wholly other”) and relationally intimate. As we stare at eternity, it is God’s imminence, his presence, which is most precious. Our task is to trust him.

For my mom and this moment, that means it’s rally time.

The Last Enemy, Reprise

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)

This week my mother was admitted into a hospice house. Mom is very weak, but alert and aware of her surroundings. She can’t even roll over. Breathing is hard for her. She has to do it intentionally, which is uncomfortable and tiring. She told me and others she is ready to go and be with Jesus. She’s not speaking in a metaphor or feigning false hope. Faith is natural to mom. She knows whom she has believed.

Mom has been slowing declining for some time now. My two sisters spent much of last year taking care of our parents in Ohio. That’s been a huge commitment because they normally live with their husbands (and pets) in North Carolina and Wyoming. But the past year has not been normal. Our brother died last May after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Our parents have needed increasing care. So my sisters stepped up and helped. They have carried all my share of care, for which I’m grateful. Sometimes I joke with them and ask if they’re still married. Fortunately, they both are blessed with flexible and faithful husbands.

Much of last year was a stalemate as dad resisted moving to assisted living and the required stairs in their split-level house became more problematic. I have often joked with mom, saying “What were you thinking?” about the split-level house they designed and built in 1964. She always laughed and said it was just right for the family. It was. It’s still home to me.

They were still searching out other solutions in February when mom became ill and had to be hospitalized. Since then she has never been able to regain her strength. The last time I talked with her at home was Easter Sunday. That week she was hospitalized for what may be the last time. This week as my older sister was driving from the hospital to the hospice house for the transfer, I naively asked if mom was with her. I deserved the sarcastic answer she delivered on the phone, saying, “Right! Mom’s bed is in the back of my car.”

It turns out mom may bypass both assisted living and the nursing home. It’s unlikely she’ll go home to dad. She may be graduated to heaven from the bed in which she now lies with discomfort. She is not at death’s door, but her sojourn’s end is likely not far away on the horizon.

When I asked mom this week if she is afraid, she immediately said, “No.” Then she hesitated and added, “But I’m not sure of the process.” That, of course, is the great mystery of life. We walk the valley of the shadow of death only once. Nobody returns to explain what lies on the other side of death.

Except for one. Jesus came back from the grave and has told us what lies beyond. He’s been there and can describe it to us. Death is not oblivion. It leads to a place Jesus has prepared for us. Because he lives, we too shall live. Mom and I talked about that on Easter Sunday.

I have told people hundreds of times that the other side is far better than this side. I still believe that. I said it to mom again this week. Heaven is not just a “where;” it’s also a “who.” Jesus referred to his death as “leaving the world and going back to the Father” (John 16:28). Heaven is about a relationship with a God who is intimately knowable.

Mom already knows God. Sometime soon, she’ll get to know him face to face. That’s far better. What a privilege!

Postscript: Shortly after posting this entry, I received word that mom’s death might be sooner than I had anticipated. That’s not a reason to panic. It’s a reminder that our times are in God’s hand, as King David eloquently penned in Psalm 31:15. When we are in God’s hand, all is well. Mom told me on Tuesday she is looking forward to heaven. It was well stated. Heaven is worth anticipating.

Reduction: Family losses

This past year brought some painful challenges to our family. My brother Darrell died in May at the age of 56 of complications from pancreatic cancer. He battled this deadly disease almost 14 years, longer than anyone else we’ve found.

Darrell once told me about going to a large conference for cancer survivors. They divided participants into groups based on their types of cancer. When it came to pancreatic cancer, he was the only attendee. There were no other survivors of pancreatic cancer there. A doctor once pronounced him clean. But it was a false hope.

Carol and I went to South Carolina to visit Darrell in his hospice bed at the very end. It was a precious time together, though he was mostly unresponsive.

Darrell died just days before his younger daughter Beth was graduated from high school. His older daughter Jenny is a graduate of Clemson and currently decorates cakes in a bakery. Darrell’s wife Anne is a librarian. Anne reports they’re all doing well.

My last uncle, Bob Rockey, passed away at the age of 88 in September. He had been closer to us than my other uncles, perhaps because of his congenial personality and his rock solid faith. Bob’s wife Joan is strong and doing well in her grief.

These family losses stirred my heart and yielded several blog entries in 2017.