How to Prepare for a Happy Death (Even If It Comes Upon You Suddenly)

St. Joseph had the happiest death of anyone in history, with Jesus and Mary at his side.

Bartolomeo Altomonte, “The Death of St. Joseph,” 18th century
Bartolomeo Altomonte, “The Death of St. Joseph,” 18th century (photo: Public Domain)

People have told me they’d rather die instantly or while sleeping than linger through a long illness or debilitation in old age.

The truth is, we’d probably like to avoid the issue of death altogether, but our preferences (or lack of preferences) ultimately will give way to God's will.

Though most of us who are in relatively good health probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about death, the past couple years of the pandemic and its aftermath have made it harder for anyone of any age to ignore the subject.

In 2021, excess mortality among what is considered the most healthy segment of the population, those between 25-64, rose 40%, according to Edward Dowd, whose firm Phinance Technologies has analyzed excess death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations.

Excess mortality is a measure of the increase in the number of deaths during a time period and/or in a certain group, as compared to the expected value or statistical trend during a reference period or in a reference population, according to Wikipedia.

The excess mortality of the general population in 2021 was 32%. Previously the 25-64 age group’s rate had normally been one-third as high as that of the general population, Dowd said, quoting an insurance expert. The 2022 percentages continue to be higher than in previous years, the data revealed.

Regardless of our age, these stats indicating higher death rates may motivate some of us to consider our own death. A sudden death might seem like the easier way to go but in fact, we pray in the Litany of the Saints for God to save us from a “sudden and unprovided death.” 

A provided death is one we prepare for, even if there’s no reason to believe death is near. Thankfully, the Church gives us help with this, including from the great protector of our Church, St. Joseph, who by some accounts had the happiest death of anyone in history through the loving care he received from Our Lord and his Blessed Mother. 

St. Joseph is known as the patron of the dying not only because of his happy death but because he is the adopted father of Christ, our Judge, where other saints are only his friends, making him an especially powerful intercessor who can plead on our behalf, according to Jesuit Father Joseph Patrignani, who wrote about St. Joseph in the 19th century. Another reason is that St. Joseph has more power over the legions of hell than other saints, in part because he safely brought Jesus into and out of Egypt when his life was threatened by Herod, Father Patrignani wrote.

Asking St. Joseph to help us have a happy death doesn’t mean we feel happy about death itself, but it does mean having peace, faith and hope in Jesus, according to Ann Lankford of the La Crosse, Wisconsin, diocese.

Praying for a happy death “includes a heartfelt plea that a priest will be present to give us the last sacraments: hearing our confession, anointing us and bringing us viaticum — the Holy Eucharist — as food for this journey,” she wrote. “This is a lifelong preparation and should not be put off, so we can guard against being unprepared at the time of death.” 

Even if Catholics die suddenly or aren’t able to receive the Last Rites from a priest before death, those who have persevered in their faith to the end of their lives don’t die unprovided for if they are in the habit of loving and serving God, St. Francis de Sales wrote.

The faithful who die suddenly don’t die “in the exercise of holy love but he dies in its habitual state,” he wrote. “For this reason, the wise man says that even ‘if the just man is overtaken by death, he shall be at rest’ (Wisdom 4:7). To win eternal life it is sufficient to die in the state and habit of love of God and charity.”

Only God knows the details of our death, but it’s not a bad idea to keep our spiritual bags packed and ready for the inevitable day and hour.