A Review of
Preparing for Death while Savoring Life
J. Dana Trent
Reviewed By Cortland Gatliff
“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else,” writes Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Price-winning book, The Denial of Death. This fear, Becker argues, is the driving force behind all human activity, “activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.” Published in 1973, Becker’s words continue to describe the fraught relationship many people have with their own deaths. The shadow of death hangs over our lives daily, yet most of us would prefer not to discuss or contemplate this grim reality.
Our society makes it particularly easy to ignore death. In the past, we died in our homes, and the entire community participated in burial and mourning rituals. Now, death—and the slow, gruesome process of dying—has been largely institutionalized, erased from everyday life. We spend our final days deep within the sterile labyrinth of a hospital, in an anonymous room where someone died yesterday, and someone else will die tomorrow. In an attempt to thwart death, we take pills, adhere to insane exercise regimens, and follow fad diets that promise to help us live just a little bit longer. When all else fails, there’s always Netflix and Instagram, constant sources of distraction from the existential dread brought on by the inevitability of death. We convince ourselves that death is something that happens to others, but certainly not to us or those we love.
Of course, tragedy does eventually find us, and we’re forced to reckon with the reality of death. In Dessert First, author J. Dana Trent, a graduate of Duke Divinity school and professor of World Religions and Critical Thinking at Wake Tech Community College, hopes to stir us from our death-denying stupor so that we might talk about, and even actively prepare for, our own deaths and the deaths of those we love long before we experience an end-of-life situation. If we wait until the very end to make key decisions and express final wishes, Trent says, it’ll probably be too late. “Every other life milestone we have requires an investment of time to do it right—whether it is K–12 education, GED completion, community college, giving birth, adopting a child, getting married . . .” writes Trent. Why would we expect dying to be any different?
Trent understands the consequences of allowing death to remain unspoken better than most. At 25, fresh out of seminary and newly ordained as a Baptist minister, she entered a prestigious one-year chaplain residency program and began rotations on the hospital floor with the highest rate of deaths per capita. Nicknamed “The Death Chaplain,” Trent witnessed more than 200 deaths, an experience that shaped her view of what it means to die—and to live—well. “Each death unfolded uniquely on its own, but with silken threads that wove a tapestry of understanding as to what we fundamentally want, need, and think when faced with life’s end,” she writes.
Our review of J. Dana Trent’s book
For Sabbath’s Sake
While Trent does share many formative stories and experiences from that year throughout her book, Dessert First is more than just a chaplaincy memoir. It’s also a deeply personal and insightful humorous diary of one woman’s journey with grief. Trent invites readers into the painful and complicated process of losing both her parents at different times, with a particular emphasis on the death of her mother, who was committed to achieving the coveted good death, free of unnecessary medical interventions and last-minute procedures that may negatively impact her quality of life. By sharing her own story of loss, Trent shows that while we will all experience grief firsthand, we don’t necessarily have to face it alone. These are heavy topics, but Trent skillfully balances the despair with doses of humor and hope.
The concept of the “good death” has a long history within the Christian faith. In the fifteenth century, for example, a literary genre called the ars moriendi, or “the art of dying,” provided clergy and laypeople alike with instructions for dying Christians and their caretakers. These woodcuts and pamphlets were widely circulated throughout Europe and commonly included prayers, images to meditate on, illustrations of temptations to resist, and practical advice for the family. The ars moriendi aimed to encourage, comfort, and spiritually prepare the dying for their impending death. It also helped those sitting bedside to contemplate their own mortality.
Dessert First is, in some sense, a modern contribution to this well-established genre. In addition to her thoughtful reflections on death and dying, Trent includes practical resources to help readers prepare for death. There’s a section providing conversation starters, legal tips, basic medical paperwork to complete, and various lessons and guides for grieving a loss. She also has a brief discussion regarding theological views of the afterlife. While her theological reflections are helpful and interesting—being a Baptist minister married to a Hindu man adds a fascinating element to her perspectives on death—Dessert First decidedly is not a treatise expounding traditional Christian views on death. Rather, Trent’s focus is more specifically on starting the conversation about death early and often, regardless of the reader’s faith background. “When we prepare ahead of time, and address what we can practically anticipate about death, we potentially have greater opportunity to mine the liminal space between life and death for meaning,” she writes.
We find meaning in end-of-life situations through rituals, Trent says. While formal, religious rituals are certainly in view here, she also explores the importance of informal, personal rituals. “Rituals are the meaning-making stuff of life,” she writes. “They are markers in our journey of life and the path toward, during, and after death, helping us to remember one another in practical and mysterious ways.” Trent points to the process of planning her mother’s memorial service with her mother as one of those informal yet hallowed rituals that gave shape to her grieving process. “I didn’t know it that day, but, with that ritual and hot cocoa and writing, she had invited me into the sacred space of preparing to give her a good death.”
There’s been a proliferation of books—both faith-based and secular—about death and dying in the past few decades, an indication that the denial of death may be slowly giving way to something closer to acceptance. It would’ve been easy for Trent’s book to get lost in the din of voices calling us to memento mori, remember our deaths. But her personal stories, thoughtful reflections, and accessible style make Dessert First a helpful resource for book clubs, groups of friends, or individuals looking to start the conversation about death. After all, as Trent’s friend and mentor Kate Bowler says, “we are all terminal.” So let’s talk about it.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com