23 June 2007

Death and dying

The following poem by Ruth Bell Graham was printed on the back of the program for her funeral, which was held on June 16 in Montreat, NC. (From the memorial website set up in her honor.)


And when I die,
I hope my soul ascends slowly,
so that I may
watch the earth
receding out of sight,
its vastness growing smaller as I rise,
savoring its recession
with delight.
Anticipating joy
is itself a joy.
And joy unspeakable
and full of glory
needs more than
“in a twinkling of an eye,”
more than “in a moment.”
Lord who am I to disagree?
It’s only we
have much to leave behind;
so much…Before.
These moments
of transition
will, for me, be
time to adore.

What a beautiful reflection on anticipation of death!

I've been thinking about death and dying lately (not in a morbid way, and not my own, but the concept in general), as it has come up in a number of contexts recently. I saw two movies last weekend that broached the subject (Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal). A young Regent student preached a sermon on the topic at my church last Sunday [I'll post a link to here it once the text is up on our church website]. My father has been preparing important documents and letting us "kids" know his wishes for after he passes away. As I prepare to write an article on Walter Wangerin, I've been reading his reflections on his struggle with cancer. There was this article in the current First Things on how important it is to keep death in our awareness, as it forms a foundation for our communities. And then a friend's blog pointed me to the memorial site for Ruth Bell Graham mentioned above.

The event that started this whole sequence of recent engagements with death was when a dear friend, an older woman in my church, stood up before us a few weeks ago, with her husband by her side, and announced that she'd been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. She hadn't been in church lately because she'd been ill, but she felt it was important to make the effort to come in and tell us in person. She was at peace with the finality of it, and was anticipating heaven with joy. She is someone who has lived a full life and feels very blessed. The hardest part for her was telling her family, for whom the news would be painful to bear. Of course there was not a dry eye in that room, and we all are grieving at the thought of losing her. But I am so glad she shared the news with us in that way, and that we had a chance to pray with her and mourn with her and hug her. I was also very stirred by her testimony of peace and joy in the face of her own death. I hope I still have enough of a sense of myself by the time I know I'm dying to be able to face it with such equanimity.

People in times past thought about death a lot more than we do in this day and age. Some (most notably the Puritans) kept a memento mori such as a human skull close at hand, to remind them of their own inevitable death, which would encourage them to live the remaining years of their lives well. But even without intentional reminders, death was in front of our forbears all the time. Mortality rates were higher for children, and there were lots more deaths from plague and illnesses which are commonly treatable now. Also, people died at home, surrounded by family, rather than hermetically sealed off in some hospital where the rest of us can conveniently pretend that it isn't going to happen to us or our loved ones. Don't get me wrong. I am very grateful for the advances in medical technology that allow us to alleviate the pain and suffering of the terminally ill. But I question our distancing ourselves from the whole process of death. I think it is part of life, and much can be learned from it. That's easy for me to say, in my 40's with hopefully several more decades left before I have to go through death's tutelage firsthand. But I have heard from a number of people what a privelege they felt it was to be with someone as he or she passed from this life to the next. It is a holy moment. Dare I say I also hope to have that privilege some day? Not soon, mind you! Especially not for my parents, or my dog, who are probably facing it the soonest of anyone I know. But I do want to be there for it when it happens.

I also hope I have the opportunity to know that I'm dying when my own time comes. There are benefits to a sudden and unexpected death, of course. No elongated pain and suffering. But I'd still rather know in advance, to be able to prepare, to "put my affairs in order" as they say, and go through the journey toward death with my wits about me, difficult though it may be. Knowing one is going to die soon has (I'm told) an incredible clarifying and focusing effect. You all of a sudden know what's really important and can ignore the trivial, avoid the temptations of time-wasting activities, throw off the irksome responsibilities placed on you by others, etc. There is a whole genre of writing by those who know they are (probably) in their final illness. Wangerin's mentioned above is just one of many. There's also Westminster Theological Seminary Professor Al Grove's blog (starting especially from 2/5/07 and going backward in time), various "my journey with Alzheimer's" titles, and such. Most of it is incredibly inspirational and full of wisdom. I'd hate to cheat myself out of that time for spiritual growth. Fortunately, it is not up to me to decide whether I need that lesson or not, and God's wisdom is greater than mine will ever be with all the sobering experiences life and death could offer.

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