by Randy Corn
Recently while reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I came across the Latin expression memento mori. Isaacson explains that when a Roman general returned victorious from battle he was given a Triumph, a grand parade, where many gifts and honors were bestowed upon him. Throughout all of this, a servant would follow the general repeating, “Memento mori,” which loosely translates into “Remember that you have to die.” This is from the chapter in Isaacson’s book where the cancer diagnosis, which would eventually take Jobs’s life, is first mentioned.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). We all observe the fact that people die, and yet in spite of Scripture and experience most of us fail to consider our own mortality—that is until a doctor brings us a life threatening diagnosis.
About a year ago that happened to me. It put me on an unfamiliar path. I had been the care-giver throughout my pastoral career; now I was the one being cared for. Now I was the one being prayed for, not the one praying. As is typical for me, I began to look around for books to help me on this journey. I found some that have been particularly helpful, and I believe would be a resource for both the suffering and those who want to understand and minister comfort. Most of these are not Christian books, but they are honest in picturing the struggle of men and women wrestling with their own mortality.
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi, Random House, 2016
This book was recommended to me by my neurologist and is one of the best written books I have come across. The author, who was a neurosurgeon in training, tells of being diagnosed with terminal cancer and how he spent the 22 months until his death. As a doctor he had a clinical view of death, but when it was his life ebbing away his perspective slowly changed. Readers can find themselves somewhere on that learning curve.
- Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Broadway Books, 1997
This book details the story of a college professor who is dying of ALS. He reconnects with one of his favorite students from years earlier who had gone on to be a successful sports writer. The two get together each Tuesday for the professor to talk about life and death. The reader feels as though he has taken a seat beside the bed of a wise man who wants to impart that wisdom before it is too late.
- The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, Hatchette Books, 2008
Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He developed cancer, and though he tried to beat it with a radical procedure, he did not. He knew from about six months out that his death was imminent. This led to what the university called his “last lecture.” It is a tradition at many schools for a retiring professor to give such a talk. Pausch was extended this opportunity and took it. The result was a memoir of sorts, packed with common sense rules for life. If there is such a thing as an upbeat book about death, this is it.
- The View from a Hearse by Joe Bayly, Clearnote Press, 1969
This book is one of the many recommendations made by Warren Wiersbe from his book, Walking with the Giants. It is from his chapter on the “Minister as Comforter.” I can see why he recommended this book. Bayly is a Christian minister who has served in both local church and Christian college settings, but his understanding of this subject is not merely theoretical. Beyond ministering to the dying and their families, he has lost three of his own children. He discusses such subjects as praying for healing and gives some very practical advice about counseling the dying and those who love them.
There are many more books on this subject, some of which I have read. But these are the ones that I feel have the most potential benefit both for the dying and for those who minister to them. Only Bayly’s book has a clear Christian perspective on death, but the others are what might be called examples of common grace. They have wisdom and even inspiration to share with us.