Death: The ‘Happy Death’?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Death
Jessica Lange as Angelique with Roy Scheider in All That Jazz

THE HAPPY DEATH? Jessica Lange played a gorgeous angel of death throughout the 1979 Oscar-winning musical All that Jazz, waiting for the main character (played by Roy Scheider) who dies of a heart attack in the final scene. The musical was directed by Bob Fosse and was based loosely on his own wild life. Fosse finally died of a heart attack in 1987.

Happy Death.

It’s a funny expression, isn’t it?

Among Catholic theologians, the happy death is defined as being in a state of grace at the moment of dying, and the church has a long history of thinking around the notion. St. Benedict was a special patron of a happy death. “He himself died in the chapel at Montecassino while standing with his arms raised up to heaven, supported by the brothers of the monastery,” shortly after receiving Holy Communion, says one Benedictine website.

The influential 19th century writer and church leader John Henry Newman wrote an enduring “Prayer for A Happy Death,” which asks that “my angel whisper peace to me, and Thy glorious saints and my own dear patrons smile on me, that in and through them all I may die as I desire to live.”

The phrase even has had some idiomatic currency: Albert Camus’ first novel was titled A Happy Death.

But we really don’t need theologians or French existentialists to explain to us what we mean by a happy death. We only have to look around and see how many dreadful and disturbing ways there are to die these days. All of us can recite horror stories of friends and relatives whose deaths were delayed by painful and hopeless medical treatments.

Most of us would say that we wouldn’t like our own deaths to come that way. That we would rather face death at a moment of peace, something like what the theologians would call a state of grace.

The playwright Sean O’Casey dedicated his play The Plough and the Stars to “the gay laugh of my mother at the gate of the grave.”

Sounds like she had a happy death.

Will you add a comment below? In more than 1,300 columns, this is the first Our Values series on death. Use the convenient index, below, to see all five parts. What do you think about how our culture approaches death?

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(Originally published at, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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