Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The great unmentionable

The topic of death is for most people today what sex was in the 19th century. Everyone dies, but no one wants to talk about it. Many of us will go to extreme lengths to dodge death rather than come to some sort of reckoning. It’s morbid and depressing, we’re told, so better that it remains the great unmentionable.

Sorry, but this seems all wrong. I believe death is deserving of our focused attention. I’m not sure any of us can truly live without first acknowledging—explicitly and honestly—that we will one day die. If life went on forever, it wouldn’t have meaning because nothing we did or believed would have any consequence. Death requires psychological preparation, and waiting until our final days to look it in the eye shortchanges this process. Those who are unprepared are rightly terrified by death. If you don’t know your destination for the most important trip you’ll ever take, panic is definitely in order. When the lights go out, you don’t want to be guessing where you’re headed.

We know from history that there is an art to dying, whether we “moderns” realize it or not. There was a time when most everyone was acquainted with death. Caring for those close to the end was not complicated and was almost always done at home. Death was not secreted away, as it is now in hospitals and nursing homes, and mourning was communal. Until the last century we didn’t have the marvels of science and medicine to convince us that death could be postponed, if not flatly denied. The cult of self-determination by which we live has given us a false sense of control. We can’t believe it when the medical system is unable to keep somebody we love alive. We dismiss what the psalmist writes, "As for the days of our life, they are three score years and ten, or even by reason of strength four score years."

I write as someone who is well past the delusion that I will live forever. I have come to terms with death. I know that after I die, I will spend eternity with God and his saints in a recreated heaven and earth. I can actually get pretty excited about that. What I believe is traditional Christian doctrine, lest you think I have some sort of unhealthy attraction to the grave. There’s a large body of teaching about death, dying, resurrection and eternity in the Bible. It’s part of God’s grand narrative that defines my life. As Shakespeare once wrote, we are born to die.

Being religious, however, doesn’t necessarily correlate with knowing how to die well. In my observation, Christians are no better at the art of dying than anyone else, partly because of their moral scruples about forgoing life-extending medical care. Almost everyone I know, irrespective of their religiosity, is uncomfortable with the notion of dying. I was, too, until the delicacy of my health forced a deeper consideration. I’ve read, prayed and meditated upon the meaning of my life, and my death. I don’t have all the details worked out, but I’m past most of the mental roadblocks. I’m trusting that when my faith is finally tested, this won’t prove to be a bluff. Should it be cancer that takes me down, I don’t intend to pursue aggressive end-of-life care. My medical directive is written. Pro-life as I am, I also believe that life’s sanctity doesn’t require its preservation at all costs when a lifetime is fulfilled.

What constitutes a good death is largely subjective. For me, it includes faithfully expressing my hope for eternal life. I would add to that the need for reconciliation with people I have wronged, and for repentance in general. To a greater or lesser degree, a good death should be about spiritual preparation for the next world. It seems foreign to think in these terms; it requires a deliberate effort. But taking care of business now, and not waiting until my time is short, gets me ready. My bags are packed. I have plenty of living left, but knowing that my sojourn here will quite definitely end, and having no fear of saying so, gives me that much more satisfaction in what I do and experience each day.


Nancy said...

The utter lack of comments on this post appears to validate your theory that nobody wants to talk about the great unmentionable. I ran away the first time but have circled back around and read your words again. Thanks for bringing it up - I can even say it - death. Your thoughtful words and declaration of faith encourage me to live my own life more deliberately. Thanks Peter.

Anonymous said...

Peter, you always make me think.
Once we had a priest over for dinner who had just been with a man as he died. The dying man kept repeating, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done". That's how I hope to go.