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Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death

Lessons on Living from People Preparing to Die

Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death by John Fanestil
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What is the secret of people who die contented and fulfilled? What makes it possible for them to attain such spiritual heights as they approach their physical demise? What enables them to make death a completion of life, rather than a tragic end? And what can they teach us about life and death, love and loss, grief and spiritual growth?

The way we die, like the way we live, makes a difference—in our lives and the lives of others.

From time to time during his work as a pastor, John Fanestil has witnessed someone dying with remarkable and uplifting grace. Fanestil was moved yet puzzled by the spirit of happiness and holiness he observed. Contemporary literature on dying, filled with talk of anger, acceptance, and forgiveness, provided little to explain it. But the chance discovery of articles about the ritual of the “happy death” in religious magazines from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought Fanestil the answers he sought.

Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death blends the captivating historical accounts Fanestil uncovered with his own pastoral experiences to reveal the secrets that enable people to transcend pain and suffering and embrace death as a completion of life, not as a tragic end. A fascinating introduction to a historic approach to death and its contemporary incarnations, Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death also offers specific lessons on living and dying, from the “exercise of prayer” to the “labor of love” to “bearing testimony.”

With the spread of in-home medical and hospice care, death is once again being embraced as a natural part of life, infused with profound emotional and spiritual dimensions. The inspiring stories in Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death beautifully demonstrate that the way we die, like the way we live, makes a supreme difference—in our lives and in the lives of others.

From the Hardcover edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; December 2007
272 pages; ISBN 9780307423733
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death
Author: John Fanestil
All quoted passaged by J. Wood are taken from "An Account of Mrs. Hunter's Holy LIfe and Happy Death."

1 Whatever degree of grace: sharing god's greatest gift

Whatever degree of Grace is communicated by the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, to any individual, is not intended for the good of that person only, but that he might shine as a light in the family, the church and the world.
--J. Wood

I have known a few people who died with a spirit of apparent nonchalance, but for most the approach of death raises -gut--level questions about the true meaning of life. Is there a God? What kind of God? And what are we, as human beings, that God should care about us? Can we really hope to know God in this life? . . . in the next?

The world's great religious traditions answer these questions by asserting that the fundamental nature of God is characterized by grace. The Hebrew word hesed, or "mercy," appears over two hundred times in the Old Testament, and the Greek equivalent, charis--translated as "grace"--over one hundred times in the much shorter New Testament. As a friend of mine once explained it to me, "Grace means there's nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there's nothing you can do to make God love you less. God loves you. That's the beginning and the ending of your story and mine."

The story of Mrs. Hunter's holy life and happy death is rooted firmly in this biblical tradition. J. Wood tips his hand in the very first words of his account: he is about to introduce a woman who was determined to communicate in her living and dying the grace made known to her in her -twenty--six years of life.

Mary Hunter's death at the age of -twenty--six may strike us as premature, but her fate was entirely common among people living in England and America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Death in infancy and early childhood was a matter of course, as is made clear by the experience of Cotton Mather, the Massachusetts clergyman famous for his role in the Salem witch trials of 1692: Mather fathered fourteen children, but seven died as infants and another at age two. Or consider the case of John and Charles Wesley, the brothers who in -eighteenth--century England founded the religious movement known as Methodism. John and Charles were two of nineteen children born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley, but only ten reached adolescence and John was given names--John and Benjamin--of older siblings who had died soon after birth.

Neither did surviving childhood guarantee longevity in Mrs. Hunter's day. Women were especially vulnerable during their childbearing years, and with the industrial revolution advancing rapidly, living and working conditions in England's cities were notorious. Disease ran rampant and popular folk remedies were widely practiced, often with devastating consequences: bleeding was still a common treatment for routine infections; drinking lye was believed to help cleanse the body of ulcers and tumors; smoking tobacco was common for easing the pains of toothaches and the like. Hospitals offered little help--not yet institutionalized as establishments for the study and cure of illness, they were run, in the historian Jacques Barzun's estimation, as "indiscriminate refuges for the poor and the sick."

Mary Hunter lived more than one hundred years after Thomas Hobbes had issued his famous indictment of life in the modern era: "No arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes's words would remain famous for generations, however, because they seemed so entirely apt.

Against this backdrop it made sense that even vibrant young men and women would choose to cast their lives in the light of the prospect of death.

Something curious was happening, though, in the world of -English--speaking Christianity in the generations that spanned the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. People were not living longer--death was as present and potent as ever--but the fear of death seemed to be subsiding in the popular imagination. The change was perceptible in English graveyards, where--as the historian David Stannard has shown--more and more tombstones featured engravings of sunrises or angels' wings, instead of the traditional -skull--shaped "death's head." It was noticeable in the preaching of the eighteenth century's great revivalists, too, who were gradually shifting their emphasis from the traditional threats of eternal damnation to such sayings as John Wesley's "All people can be saved; all people can know they are saved; all people can be saved to the uttermost." It could be heard in church music too, where the optimistic hymns of John's genius brother Charles were beginning to dominate.

The uplifting doctrine to which the Wesleys were giving popular expression went by the name "Free Grace," the title of one of Charles's favorite hymns. This doctrine asserted that an individual's salvation could be had by God's grace alone and could not be achieved by any human endeavor. This sentiment had fueled the Protestant Reformation on the European continent--so called for its adherents' "protests" against the perceived abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. In England the same impulse had given rise to an era of Puritan reform, whose adherents wanted to "purify" the beliefs and practices of the Church of England. Protestants and Puritans alike understood that the gift of grace was entirely unmerited: as the contemporary preacher George Regas has said of God's grace, "you can't earn it, you can't buy it, you can't win it, you can't deserve it--all you can do is accept it."

So it was that by the time Mary Hunter died a happy death in 1801, she had behind her generations of religious ferment. She had been taught that God's grace alone was sufficient for her salvation, and she had available for her inspiration a treasure trove of hymns, stories, and sermons, and the examples set by countless others who had died before her in the faith. Having had the grace of God communicated to her so powerfully, she came to view her dying as presenting a golden opportunity to convey this same grace to others.

A few years into my tenure as the pastor of Westchester United Methodist Church, a midsized congregation on the west side of Los Angeles, a couple named Jim and Barbara Wislocki started coming to church. In his fifties, of English and Polish ancestry, with a round face but a pointed nose, Jim was as outgoing as his wife was shy. More than once after Sunday worship, over a cup of coffee and between pleasantries exchanged with other members of the congregation, Jim and I debriefed the day's sermon while Barbara politely listened in.

Jim was a theological novice, but he had an active and inquisitive mind. An engineer with a strong background in science, he was pleased to find that I was willing to entertain rationalist critiques of the Bible and was interested to explore how I, as a Christian pastor, might account for the spiritual renewal he was experiencing at this time in his life.

As he explained it to me, it had all begun with his meeting Barbara, who had loved him in a way that he had not believed he was capable of being loved. "I've done some awful things in my life," he told me on more than one occasion, "but Barbara just refused to let the past get in the way."

Through Barbara, Jim was experiencing what Charles Wesley, almost three centuries earlier, had called "free grace." For Jim, estranged from his first wife and their two grown children, meeting and marrying Barbara had marked the beginning of a whole new life.

At first Jim had believed he was going to church for Barbara's sake, but week by week he found that what he was hearing and experiencing on Sunday mornings was resonating with his own spirit. He asked to become a member of the church and began to call himself a Christian, something he confessed he would have considered, at an earlier stage of life, to be a laughable impossibility.

About a year after joining the church, Jim was diagnosed with cancer--a CAT scan had revealed a malignant tumor growing beneath his skull, behind his left ear. A few weeks later he called me up and asked if I could tell him why he wasn't depressed. I couldn't, of course, but when he told me he was preparing to undergo intensive chemotherapy, I assumed he was mustering a kind of optimism that I had seen before in cancer patients. In my experience, this kind of optimism serves people well, so I offered Jim nothing but encouragement. "I don't know why you're feeling so upbeat," I said, "but I say just run with it."

Something about Jim, though, was different from most cancer patients I had known. Through the course of his treatment, his spiritual awakening accelerated. In the midst of a taxing regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, he was absolutely blooming. He was in love with his wife--"the best wife anyone could ever want." He was in love with his new church--"a great church, a fantastic group of people." He was in love with life.

Knowing that Jim was something of a computer expert, I called him up one day, explained to him that I was in the market for a new laptop, and asked his advice.

"Let's go shopping," he proposed. I was quick to accept the invitation.

The next Wednesday I drove up to the front of Jim's house and, per our agreement, honked the horn. As he walked to the car, I noticed he had lost a lot of weight, something that, ironically, made his entirely average -middle--aged paunch stand out more than it ever had before. He smiled at me and tipped his plaid racing cap--his preferred sartorial strategy for hiding the patchy baldness that chemotherapy had caused.

Jim and I drove to Westwood, to a little computer store that dealt in high volume with faculty and students at nearby UCLA. Jim was on a mission to get me the best laptop money could buy.

After I insisted again and again that I really did need to work within a budget, Jim finally relented. He asked a salesman to start up a couple of different models and took them for a test drive while I looked over his shoulder.

After talking me through a comparison, Jim pointed at the second laptop on the counter and said, "This is a great computer. This is the best value. This will last you a long, long time." Six years later, when I first sat down to type out Jim's story on my Toshiba Satellite 315CDS, I remarked that he was entirely right.

After shopping we drove down the coast and stopped for lunch at a fish house in Marina del Rey. Sitting on the restaurant's sunlit veranda, eating a swordfish sandwich, Jim could hardly contain himself. This was an absolutely incredible day. I had just bought what was arguably the best laptop computer in the world (under $1,500, anyway). We were eating the best swordfish ever caught. Our view of the Pacific was unsurpassed. Surely I had to agree with him: life just doesn't get any better than this.

Jim Wislocki, dying of cancer, was treating me to one of the best days of his life. It was one of the best days of my life too.

That week I determined to pay closer attention to Jim. For several months my own spirit at church had been growing worse and worse. I was bickering with some of the church's leaders--over what I can now barely recall--and I had let these disagreements sour my mood. I decided to try to look at the church through Jim's eyes, to see if I could account for his unabashed enthusiasm.

At the coffee hour the following Sunday, Jim worked the room as if he were the pastor, not I. He welcomed newcomers, singing the praises of his new church family and bragging about my preaching. He consoled the people, sick or grieving, whose names had been lifted during the time of public prayer.

Even the people I experienced as most difficult Jim found delightful. He called me over to hear a story that Dave Lovell was telling him, not knowing that Dave and I had been engaged in a bitter argument just the week before. With Jim egging him on, Dave started the story over and when he finished, the three of us laughed and laughed.

Over the course of the next few weeks I stayed in close touch with Jim Wislocki. It dawned on me that I was sick in spirit, and Jim's infectious grace was the perfect remedy. Following his lead, I began once again to practice the simple discipline of looking for the best in people, instead of expecting the worst. My heart softened.

Eventually, Jim gave up on chemotherapy. The tumor had not responded to treatment and was continuing to spread. His oncologist said surgery was not an option because the tumor was deeply enmeshed with his brain. He would continue with radiation, to delay the cancer's spread, but he stopped all curative measures in hopes of improving the quality of his remaining weeks or months.

At this point in his life Jim astonished me. Quite simply, he displayed no fear or apprehension in the face of death. In fact, apart from the thought of leaving Barbara, he did not give any real signs of lament. Every day was better than before, filled with remarkable surprises and unexpected gifts. As his body died from cancer, Jim's spirit was being filled to the brim with life and love.

In his last weeks, Jim was overcome by a sense of oneness with God. I asked him what he thought about dying, and, a scientist through and through, he said he conceived of it like this: "It is all energy and mass. And if I live or if I die, I will still be a part of the cosmos, I will still be a part of God. I will have changed in form but I will not cease to be." Jim's formulation struck me as an authentic attempt to put into modern language the inexpressible, inescapable mystery of God's immeasurable grace. As Christians the world over sing almost weekly in worship, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen."

A few weeks after his death, I remembered Jim in a Mother's Day sermon at church. I shared with people how Barbara, by "refusing to let the past get in the way," had demonstrated for Jim the very essence of God's grace. And I shared how blessed I had been by Jim's readiness to share that same grace with me.

From the Hardcover edition.