Johann Christoph Arnold doesn't mince words when describing his mother's death.
The matriarch of the Bruderhof community learned she had cancer of the lymph nodes late in 1979 and her condition rapidly deteriorated, accompanied by tremendous pain. After decades of serving others, she also found it hard to be an invalid who needed constant care. Still, there were transcendent moments. Throughout her five-month ordeal, children gathered to sing hymns and pray at her bedroom window.
"Just hearing their voices had an almost magical impact on her -- physically and spiritually," said Johann Christoph Arnold, a writer and social activist who now serves as senior elder of the eight Bruderhof communes in the U.S. and England. "Her face would radiate the love they were giving her. Some of her last words were, 'The children. The children.' "
The inspiration flowed both ways. As the children learned about her suffering, many wrestled with questions of life, death and eternity. Annemarie Arnold knew this and, on her deathbed, prayed for those making life-changing decisions on the other side of the windowpane.
No one found it strange that children found inspiration in the dying days of an elderly woman. No one found it strange that she took comfort in the fact that her life and death inspired others. In a simple book called I Tell You A Mystery," Arnold describes many similar passages from life into death. These scenes may sound strange to many, he said, because so many churches fail to teach one of life's crucial lessons -- that it's possible to die a good death.
This fear of touching death results in a haunting sense of emptiness in many Holy Week services. Churches that avoid the tragedy of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday will have little to say that rings true on Easter.
"Death is not a sweet thing that needs to be glorified," said Arnold, who lives in the Bruderhof community in Rifton, N.Y. "But you have to deal with the subject of death in order to say anything meaningful about the subject of life after death. You fall silent on one and you fall silent on the other."
It's impossible to address the hopes and fears in human hearts without talking about eternal life. Nevertheless, most modern church leaders seem People still believe in it: it's just that their concept of exactly what it is has grown foggier, and they hear about it much less frequently from their pastors."
Churches that hesitate to teach people how to live and die eventually lose confidence in their ability to talk about life after death. Part of the problem is that families and religious leaders have allowed outsiders almost total control of death and dying, said Arnold.
This would be unthinkable in the Bruderhof (place of the brothers"), a tiny Protestant movement that began in Germany before its commitment to pacifism and the sanctity of life led to Nazi persecution. Today, its 2,500 members remain committed to simple living, but do not reject hospitals, medical technology and many other benefits of modern life. They even offer a spiritual advice forum on the World Wide Web (www.bruderhof.org).
But they will not adandon their way of dying, said Arnold. This includes singing, prayer and worship at the bedside. After death, family members wash and prepare the body for burial. The entire community takes part in the funeral, a procession to the grave, the burial and testimonial meals. The goal is to celebrate the person's legacy and help everyone face their grief.
"I have seen many, many people die. It involves one's whole being -- one's body, one's emotions, one's spirit," said Arnold. Those close to the dying person experience a tangle of emotions: dread, anguish, sorrow, hope, exhaustion and pain. But at the moment of departing, we often can sense signs of the resurrection and the life beyond. We may see a smile, a new look in the eyes, perhaps an unexpected movement or speech, as if the dying one is standing on the edge of eternity. It can be a moment of victory.