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Only Human

Let's Talk About Death

Bishop Gwendolyn Phillips Coates is on a mission. She’s a preacher in a small church in South Los Angeles, and she’s made it her job to get her congregation prepared for one thing: death.

Bishop Coates has lost two husbands and both parents, so she knows first hand how important it is to tell your loved ones what you want at the end of your life. “Having the conversation is not a death sentence, having a conversation is one of the greatest gifts that you can give to someone,” she says. But getting people to think ahead about end of life care is a tall order. Especially in the African American community, where a history of exploitation by the medical establishment lingers, such as the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment started in the 1930s.

Far fewer African American patients get hospice care or have advance directives than white patients. “The distrust of the medical profession means that I’m not sure that my doctor always has my best interests at heart,” Coates says. And that distrust, she says, makes people push for every last treatment.

“I’ve seen people who have had absolutely excruciating, horrible deaths, who have died on dialysis machines, who have died in so much pain.”  Bishop Coates is convinced that talking about the inevitable from the pulpit can help ease that suffering. And that, she thinks, can make living better too.


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