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A Happy Death!

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In the Roman Catholic culture…..we were taught to pray for a happy death. For many Catholics at the time, this was a standard petition within their daily prayer: “I pray for a happy death.”

But how can one die happy? Isn’t the death-process itself excruciating? What about the pain involved in dying, in letting go of this life, in saying our last goodbyes? Can one die happy?

But the vision here, of course, was religious. A happy death meant that one died in good moral and religious circumstances. That meant that you didn’t die in some morally-compromised situation, you didn’t die alienated from your church, you didn’t die bitter or angry at your family, and, not least, you didn’t die from suicide, drug or alcohol overdose, or engaged in some criminal activity……

What is a happy death? I like Ruth Burrows’ description: Burrows, a Carmelite nun, shares the story of a fellow-nun with whom she once lived. This sister, Burrows tells us, was a good-hearted, but weak, woman. She had entered a contemplative convent to pray, but she could never quite muster the discipline for the task. And so she lived for years in that state: good-hearted, but mediocre. 

Later in life, she was diagnosed with a terminal disease which frightened her enough so that she began to make new efforts at becoming what she was supposed to be her whole life, a woman of prayer. But a half century of bad habits are not so easily changed. Despite new resolutions, the woman never succeeded in turning her life around. She died in her weakness. 

But, Burrows asserts, she died a happy death.  She died the death of a weak person, asking God to forgive her for a lifetime of weakness.

To die a happy death is to die in honesty, irrespective of whether the particular circumstances of our death look good religiously or not. Dying in right circumstances is, of course, a wonderful consolation to our families and loved ones, just as dying in sad circumstances can be heartbreaking for them. 

But dying in circumstances which don’t look good, humanly or religiously, doesn’t necessarily equate with an unhappy death.  We die a happy death when we die in honesty, irrespective of circumstance or weakness.

And this truth offers another challenge: The circumstances of someone’s death, when those circumstances are sad or tragic, should not become a prism through which we then see that person’s whole life. 

What this means is that if someone dies in a morally-compromised situation, in a moment or season of weakness, away from his or her church, in bitterness, by suicide, or by an addiction, the goodness of that life and heart should not be judged by the circumstances of that death. 

Death caught that person on a down-bounce, which can make for a more guarded obituary, but not for a true judgment as to the goodness of his or her heart.

By Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI       Thanks to Victor L. for the photo. 

Do YOU often pray for a happy death? What does dying a happy death mean to YOU?


So many people pray for a happy death. They really need to hear today’s Message. Please share it: You will enjoy my Podcast as well.

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