By Art McDonald
Some years back I was in a circle with other ministers doing what we call “check ins” – sharing what’s going on in our ministerial and personal lives. One colleague went on to lament that she had done way too many funerals in the last little while and was totally overwhelmed by the experiences, the difficulties, the mourning and sadness, trying to comfort parishioners and offering some solace. When it came to be my turn, I suppose the outlier in the group, I shared that I had recently come back from a funeral in my former church in Pittsburgh and how exhilarated I was by the experience. In fact, I went on, given the option of a funeral to preside over or a wedding, I’ll take a funeral any day! Too long to explain this phenomenon this morning, but suffice to say I think it’s one of the most important rituals a minister can do for congregational members in a time of sadness and grief and loss. But lest you go away this morning thinking this morning’s pulpit person has a strange take on life and ministry, where did Julie get him, I’ve also greatly enjoyed many of the weddings over the years I’ve had the privilege to witness.
When Julie asked me about a pulpit swap some time ago, she mentioned that this month’s theme was death. Guess I’m your man, Julie, I replied. But, I have to admit, I was also curious as to why a congregation would choose to focus a month on this topic so many in our culture would rather avoid. So I applaud whoever came up with the idea.
How do we talk about death? Is there any wisdom out there? First, a few random quips.
Sometime philosopher, but mostly film maker Woody Allen once said: “I don’t mind the thought of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
A student, somewhat worried, once asked a Zen Master: “What happens after death?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “But you’re a Zen master,” the student went on. “Yes, but not a dead one,” the Zen master responded.
How about preparing for death? Henry David Thoreau, close to the hearts of many Unitarians, when close to death, proclaimed the thought of death could not begin to trouble him. When a friend try to console him by stating “we must all go,” Thoreau responded: “When I was a little boy I learned that I must die, and I set that down, so of course I am not disappointed now. Death is as near to you as it is to me.” Then, “some of his more orthodox friends and relatives tried to prepare him for death, but with little satisfaction to themselves…when his aunt Louisa asked him if he had made his peace with God, he answered, I did not know that we had ever quarreled, Aunt.”
Finally, on his death bed, Plato simply suggested that we all “practice dying.”
“Practice dying?” Any brilliant ideas you might ask? Years back I read an Autumn reflection in the Boston Globe entitled: “Death and the Lesson of the Leaves,” a meditation on the Fall in Vermont, the author, Chris Bohjalian’s home state. ( Boston Globe, Sept. 2008) Although “there are lots of reasons why people celebrate the fall foliage,” one key reason for Bohjalian is death. Everyone understands that the leaves are slowly dying, preceded by this brilliant transition from green to red – and “what a handsome death it is,” he writes, “No dementia, no incontinence, no children or loved ones bickering over whether to pull the plug or order one last round of chemo cocktails…humans should be so lucky,” he muses. He borrowed the expression “the lesson of the leaves” from a friend’s book entitled: LAST RIGHTS: RESCUING the END of LIFE from the MEDICAL SYSTEM.”
This reflection, “lessons of the leaves,” brings to mind for me a deep cultural problem I believe we have here that a brilliant social scientist from the 60s in Berkeley, Ernest Becker, referred to in a book entitled THE DENIAL of DEATH, still a great read for anyone willing to face a bit of a challenge. Becker actually wrote the book after having received, if you will, a death sentence, from his doctor who shared with him the news of Becker’s terminal cancer. But the book isn’t really about how to face death head on, exactly, but rather his attempt at an explanation as to why people do evil – a lifelong academic passion for Becker as an anthropologist – like build weapons of mass destruction; it’s an attempt to deny our mortality, he argues. We can’t face death, so we create havoc, try to control life, in our avoidance and denial. But, back to the dying process and the “lessens of the leaves,” while dying, Becker made sure that he didn’t allow the medical system to keep him alive when the inevitable was clear. He used his final days to reflect upon his rich life and let nature take over.
Bioethicist, Daniel Callahan, has for decades been suggesting that concerning end of life issues, our medical system has a major difficulty, reflective, no doubt, of our larger society and culture. (SETTING LIMITS; FALSE HOPES) At some point in fairly recent history, suggests Callahan, modern medicine declared war on nature, i.e., despite marvelous medical advances, modern medicine has failed to manage the passage between life and death. It simply doesn’t know either technically or emotionally how to do this consistently well. Modern medicine has lost sight of death as natural and “…has come, in its working research, and often clinical agenda, to look upon death as a correctible biological deficiency.” In fact, he goes on, because of incredible advances, we have come to look upon keeping someone alive as a deeply moral imperative, something we are more and more able to control. We have created a kind of puzzle, a conundrum as to what to do about the fact that death is still inevitable and, of course, completely natural. How do we reclaim nature; restore some balance between nature and medicine? (I think the hospice movement is an attempt to counter the usual medical model, so there is some progress) Maybe it’s a theological problem, suggests Callahan, whether Jewish or Christian or Buddhist or Native American, that there is a simple lesson shared by these wisdom traditions that life and death are continuous, part of one journey, and the purpose of life, according to one theologian, is a “journey of consciousness,” “a voyage of discovery” (John S. Dunne, TIME & MYTH) until we encounter the next step of the journey we know as death, when we enter the unknown.
While in seminary training at Catholic University in Washington, DC, each summer students needed to find a ministry, thus balancing our academic training with real experience. Having experienced death up close and personal in a very limited way to that point in my life, since all but one grandparent died before I was born, I decided I wanted to work as a nurse’s aid in a hospital for the chronically ill. (1975) My pastoral supervisor, a priest, couldn’t make sense of this and suggested I serve as a chaplain instead. No, I said, I might be too shielded from death first hand if I do that; I want to work more closely with folks in the dying process and hang out with them, bathe them, and, when the time comes, deliver their dead bodies to the morgue. I want to know how it feels; what it looks like. He just shook his head and signed off on it. It was one of my very best life’s decisions. I worked closely with folks, observed and participated in the dying process, listened to their fears and concerns, and cleaned their dead bodies before delivering them to their penultimate resting spot in a cold refrigerator. As I carted each body away I kept wondering where did Peter and George and Harry go as I stared at their lifeless bodies? No theology classes had prepared me for that.
Now, fast approaching 70, after some 45 years or so in ministry, as a Catholic priest and now a UU minister, I have drawn on a number of theological and spiritual traditions or perspectives in facing the deaths of family members, friends and parishioners. From my Catholic roots I have inherited the tradition of the “communion of saints,” those who have gone before, including my ancestors, and who I was taught and believed lived on in the presence of God. As a child I often went off to the cemetery with my father, a very pious Irish-Catholic fellow, who lost his mother when he was 11 years-old. We would travel around and plant flower plots on all the ancestor’s gravesites and we’d pray to them and talk to them. They always seemed close, especially when we went to the cemetery.
Later, while in UU ministry, by necessity I broadened my theological and spiritual horizons and most especially found the Buddhist tradition most helpful in negotiating death.
“Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing,” writes Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. ( NO DEATH, NO FEAR) But “The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence,” he goes on. “It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that there is no birth, there is no death; there is no coming, there is no going; there is no same, there is no difference; there is no permanent self, there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.”
For Native American spiritual writer, Mary Jose Hobday, “…part of life is living with death and the dead, keeping alive the memory of those that have gone ahead…Where Indians still have use of their reservation lands they often commemorate the place of death with a marker, a shrine, or a flower arrangement…In villages that are alive to tradition, the cemeteries are lovingly cared for and show many touches of respect and sentiment. How a village cares for its cemetery is usually a sign of the spiritual vigor of the people living there…Continuity with the past gives strength to the present and offers hope for the future. Perhaps a great sense of the rootlessness of the Western world is its separation from the dead. Familiarity with the dead can lessen the fear of death.” (“Seeking a Moist Heart: Native American Ways for Helping the Spirit,” in WESTERN SPIRITUALITY: Ed. Matthew Fox)
One of my most challenging experiences with death was that of a brother, two years older, who died of an aggressive form of cancer at age 56, here in Massachusetts. I was in Pittsburgh at the time, but the congregation there was very understanding of my and his need to spend time together in his last months, so I traveled often to Boston to accompany him in this journey. He would call and say: “any chance you can come up and hang out for a few days?” We would sit together on the couch, or go do simple errands, sometimes in utter quiet, other times he would ask: “ so what do you think is going on? What happens? Am I going anywhere? What’s it going to be like? And I would respond, not so much what it’s liking being dead (I learned that from the Zen Master) but just what is this life and death journey all about. And, like a good UU pluralist, I drew off all the traditions that I knew well enough to speak from. My brother was a pretty pious Catholic, a believer, so I said to him, dad’s going to be there when you arrive; talk to him, pray to him, he’ll help. So he did. I would walk by his room and hear him talking to our dad, asking for help. When an old friend from childhood, a Catholic priest, came to visit, he told me my brother seemed to be in great peace.
But I also talked to my brother in Buddhist terms, without letting him know these were Buddhist, not Catholic, ideas. I read to him passages from Ram Dass, the Hindu, somewhat Buddhist practitioner, from a book entitled: I’M STILL HERE, a reflection on Dass’s own journey with near death. Death is simply another experience to pass through, we heard, just another part of the journey, perfectly natural and doable. We’ll get through this, I assured him.
Thich Nhat Hanh, in a book entitled NO FEAR, NO DEATH, writes about the importance of accompanying the dying, both for their sake and your own. “Watering the seeds of happiness is a very important practice for the sick and dying. All of us have seeds of happiness inside us, and in difficult moments when we are sick or when we are dying, there should be a friend sitting with us to help us touch the seeds of happiness within. Otherwise the seeds of fear, of regret or of despair can easily overwhelm us.” Tell stories, remember past joys and highlight moments, maybe shared experiences of accomplishment or pleasure. Bring peace, calm and joy; tap the “seeds of happiness” as best you are able. What a gift. As the Buddhist teaching suggests: “Birth and Death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide and seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave goodbye.”
I began these rather limited thoughts with an admission that I love presiding at funerals, even difficult ones. I mentioned that in a ministerial circle here in Massachusetts I related to colleagues a funeral I had just returned from in Pittsburgh of a 36 year-old member of the congregation, who died leaving behind a 9 year-old daughter. Emily was a classical violinist, and had begun a Pittsburgh group, still alive today, called Chatham Baroque. I accompanied Emily in the last years of her life, even holding her hand in a doctor’s examining room as blood was drawn from her bone marrow. Yet, over and over again, Emily repeated “I have loved my life and I am so grateful,” her only serious regret leaving her daughter behind. Her only request was that we do her memorial service in a converted Catholic Church which had become a huge Italian restaurant with a huge beer vat sitting where the altar used to be. Her mother was horrified and, after Emily died, called me to try to convince me change the venue. I can’t do that, I replied, I made a promise to Emily and I plan on honoring it. The church was never so full; I reminded those attending that the vat behind me had Guinness Stout in it and in the country of my ancestors it is considered a sacred libation. So let us celebrate Emily’s life as she would have us do it. Now you know why I like funerals so much. Emily’s words ring in my ears to this day: “I have love my life and I am so grateful.”
And remember, in the words of a good Irishman, John O’Donohue, who died too young, reflecting on the Celtic tradition, but also that of our Native sisters and brothers, “the dead are not far away; they are very, very near us.” Keep this in mind; it’s a way of implementing Plato’s suggestion of “practice dying.”