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Our dog died last month. Thank you for your condolences. I think almost all of us have learned to take the death of pets seriously. I certainly did as a pastor. None of this callous “it was only a dog.”

The pet eulogy has become a standard writing genre. Many of America’s great writers have contributed. We’ve had several beautiful ones here on the RJ blog.

Bessie was a kind and gentle old soul, certainly deserving of a lovely eulogy. But this isn’t really one of them. 

I believe what makes her death especially difficult is that we’re saying “No more dogs.” As a lifelong dog person — I’ve had seven Boston terriers through the years — it is hard to think that this aspect of my life is over. You see, we’re newly retired and looking forward to doing all those retiree things — travel, being with grandkids, living abroad, volunteering. All things made more difficult with a pet, no matter how wonderful and accommodating your pet is. 

Saying “no more dogs for us” not only means no more dogs, it tells us that we are winding down. Of course, we’re vibrant and healthy and looking forward to the freedom of retirement. But as much as it is a new season or the third act of life, it is also the final act. 


Here I lured you in with expectations of a touching tribute to a sweet dog. And now instead, we’re going to talk about preparing for death. And please, spare me the admonishments that I’m being unduly morbid or that retirement does not equal death. I know that. I’m not depressed. I’m very much looking forward to retirement. 

Saint Benedict, I’m told, counseled that an empty casket should always be in plain sight in the sanctuary or chapel of a community. When a member of the community died, they were to be buried in that casket and a new one should appear ready for the next death.

I’ve never been accused of favoring frothy, seeker-sensitive worship. Yet having an empty casket in the chancel seems pretty extreme to me! It was Benedict’s way to illustrate his teaching, “Keep death always before your eyes.”  

Even sans casket, Christian worship does that — at least more than our death-avoidant culture. Try counting how many times you hear or say the words death or dead in a worship service. It may not be that many, but I would hope it won’t be zero.

There are all sorts of directions we could go here — some deep and philosophical. But I’m going to stick with practical ideas, things I have observed over my years of pastoring. Things especially relevant to people over the age of 60, possibly even 50. Rumor has it that RJ has some readers who fit that category. 


What I want to talk about and have lots of experience with is possessions, stuff, downsizing, housing, and the like. 

My wife and I have moved four times in the last seven years, not great distances, but to different types of housing and consolidating two places into one. Everyone knows moving is a real pain. I’ve enjoyed none of it. But moving forces you to take inventory, to dig deeply into fossilized corners of guest rooms and garages. 

Because I’ve seen so many friends and parishioners refuse to do this work, I might be ahead of the curve, overreacting to the inactivity and denial I encounter all around me. “We’re not quite ready for that yet…” or “It’s just so hard to part with these precious things…” and “Our kids don’t want anything. But I guess we’ll just leave it all for them to deal with someday…”

This confirmation of Newton’s first law is only natural. That’s why my apparent being-ahead-of-the-curve is probably right on time. It’s the some days and not-quite-ready-yets that inevitably will be too late. For many people it is already too late. I suspect they know it too, but can’t quite acknowledge it to themselves. Overestimating their youthfulness and refusing to make decisions means ultimately decisions will be made for them.

So shed, cull, downsize, stop acquiring, find a sustainable way of living in the present and one that recognizes the coming years. Apologies if I sound like a scold. I’m not pushing you to get down to 100 possessions. That’s hardly a danger for us. Even with all our recent trips to the dumpster and the second-hand store, I’m still preaching to myself. It’s a message we do not want to hear.


I’m probably also expected now to add something about preparing for death existentially, relationally, spiritually. Nope, not going to whip out that old fear inducer, “If you died tonight, do you know if you’d go to heaven?” I’ve always appreciated the “four things that matter most” that Hospice introduced to me. But don’t wait until your final days to say Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. 

I’m so early in this third act of life that I hesitate to say too much. One of my hopes is to put into place the practices and resources that might be helpful with some of the trials and diminishments that are ahead. It isn’t quite as simple as putting chips in the bank that I’ll be able to withdraw when I receive that heartbreaking news or deadly diagnosis. I’m aiming, naively hopeful though it may be, to saturate myself in things of wholeness, beauty, and love that will hold me or at least help me in whatever future may come 

I met Bob, 90, and Joey, 12, recently. We were walking in one of those condo developments teeming with seniors. Bob was pushing Joey in his walker. I felt a spark and thought, “Maybe in about 15 years or so it will be time for another dog.” Never say never.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • I really like when we get to hear from you here, Steve. And I am sorry about Bessie.

    The first day we got a puppy, my (then) 7 year-old looked at me and said, “I hope he NEVER dies.” And so it began.

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    I’m very sorry about Bessie.
    And I appreciated how you ended your essay with Bob and Joey.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    After receiving a sizeable inheritance from the in-laws’ estate, my dear spouse and I put an amount of it immediately into our 1930’s era home, rehabbing, renewing top to bottom, inside and out. Not just finally for our own enjoyment but “so that someday, when we leave, it will be a nice place for someone else”—defying the trend of razing old homes and building new.
    Our “last chapter”(hopefully a final volume maybe?) has also included decluttering–inspired the task of dealing with parents’ estates, properties, and stuff–“I’ll not subject my daughter to that task”, and the proclamation that after three successive lovely companions over nearly 40 years, we took are done with dogs.
    Except maybe a Corgi —or another Shiba. And we don’t mind our kids’ dogs that come for a visit. And we have on occasion cared for vacationing -friends’ dogs . . .

  • Jeff Japinga says:

    Someday, sooner I hope than later, I will be directly applying the wisdom you have gained and shared here. For the moment, however, it is enough just to soak in and appreciate your writing, this time like every time.

  • Cheri Scherr says:

    My condolences Steve. Having just lost Score, I empathize with you. Each time the last dog dies, I say no more dogs. My heartache just can’t handle it. Vic is winding down and can no longer jump on the bed. This is probably his last year and I’m already saying no more dogs. Ken will work on changing my mind. So who knows.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    My husband and I have downsized and appreciate a smaller footprint dwelling. Less space equals less stuff. No dogs for us for many years but GRAND dogs have captured our hearts for decades. Our older son’s dog, Zoey, needed to be put down about six months ago. I miss her eager greeting and affection when we visit. Lucy is less affectionate but we’re working on it, she actually cuddled up to me during our last visit. Thanks for the reminder that dogs are not part of our human stuff but integral parts of meaningful life.

  • David Hoekema says:

    I’m hiding today’s blog posting from Clara Bo so she doesn’t become anxious about whether we plan to downsize her soon. She brings endless delight, and also many complications, to life in retirement. (Blog readers may remember her from a previous post: )

  • Jon says:

    It’s always time for another dog. That doesn’t mean getting one. But the time is always right. 😀

  • Terry Woodnorth says:

    I recommend the De Pree Center’s course “Flourishing in the Third Third of Life” for helpful guidance on navigating the “third third” of life. See

  • Jaci Ray says:

    My condolences Steve. Bessie was a sweetheart.

  • Lloyd Vanderkwaak says:

    I enjoyed your pondering about the third act of life. I wonder if others might find it helpful to have a discussion forum to share thoughts, experiences and surprises about this new stage of life. Perhaps an on-line community might be a place we can learn from each other as we are re-sorting, re-organizing and making sense of lives as we settle into to this new space.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Thanks, Lloyd. I haven’t done much looking yet, but I have to think there are such places and groups. It’s a matter of finding them. Terry, above, shared a resource from Fuller Seminary. Readers, if you have suggestions, please let us know.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks to so many of you who reached out, here and privately, about Bessie. To know her was to love her. And thanks to those who dared to engage on the less warm-and-fuzzy part — downsizing and shedding as we age. I don’t write as an accomplished expert on that, but only one who has seen it neglected so often and almost always with really sad results.

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