Book Review: Dessert First

We need people from interfaith families to write a whole list of books–on love, birth, coming of age, aging together–written from diverse religious, spiritual and secular perspectives. So I am thrilled that J. Dana Trent is on her way to producing an entire canon from her perspective as a Baptist minister married to a Hindu. Her first book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk, described her interfaith courtship and marriage with humor and humility. Her latest book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life, brings those same attractive qualities to writing about the idea that we are “all terminal.”

Trent has abundant experience with death. She spent a formative year as a hospital “death chaplain,” sitting with dying patients, and with grieving families. She has been, at a relatively early age, through the deaths of her father, her mother, and her father-in-law. And she has experienced both the death of a parent with whom she had a distant and troubled relationship, and the death of a parent with whom she had an extraordinarily close relationship.

There are many self-help books out there about grief. Trent’s book stands out, not only because of the interfaith family angle, but because her irrepressible wit leavens the inevitable pain and turmoil surrounding death. For instance, she describes trying to fill out the necessary paperwork and plan a funeral in the first days after a death as ” like assembling IKEA furniture in a wind tunnel.” Having recently been through the death of both my parents, I found this to be a very apt, and funny, metaphor.

Dessert First was clearly written by a Christian living in the Bible belt. So, Trent spends significant time thinking about–and writing about–the afterlife, heaven, and the way that Christians do, or do not, navigate these ideas as death approaches. More interesting, for me, were the brief moments describing the interfaithness of her family, and the way this interfaithness has expanded to include the parental generation. So, for instance, we see her Hindu husband chanting into his father’s ear as he lies dying. And we see her mother’s body, after death, with glass Protestant prayer beads in one hand, and wooden Hindu beads wrapped in the other hand. Trent shows, in these glimpses, how her interfaith family is starting to figure out their own way to honor the religion of the deceased, while also honoring the religious rituals of those left behind.

The interfaithness of the book is also reflected in the inspirational quotes at the head of each chapter, including not only Christian texts and theologians but Rabbi Harold Kushner and the Bhagavad Gita. And Trent, who is a professor of world religions, provides a brief synopsis of ideas about the afterlife in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Dessert First also includes guidance on leaving instructions for your own death and funeral or memorial, in a section that complements the material on these topics in The Interfaith Family Journal.

My only significant qualm about this book is that the author expresses a strong preference for hospital deaths, versus home deaths. Trent is from a family of health practitioners (her brother is a doctor, her mother was a nurse) and her own experiences, both as a chaplain, and with her mother, were of hospital deaths. I’m not sure what informed her idea of “the trauma of dying at home.” Both my parents died in home hospice. I found these experiences peaceful and profound, and my only regret is that we did not bring my mother home from the hospital sooner. But inevitably, we each write from our own experiences.

Whether or not you are from an interfaith family, Dessert First makes a cogent case for discussing death early and often, for leaving explicit instructions, and for approaching this essential topic with curiosity and compassion, rather than fear and trembling. This is a slim and attractive book (with sprinkles on the cover!), filled with Trent’s stories and with her bravery in writing about this topic. Dessert First should provide succor, metaphorical balm, and even laughter, to all who read it.

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

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