When my father became ill near the end of his life, he fought death as hard as anyone I knew – just as he had willed himself to overcome every other obstacle in his life. He often told us about his mother who would set chairs across the kitchen to hold her upright when she could no longer stand. She had drilled into him, “When nothing but your will says go.”
As his physical condition deteriorated, my father’s will to beat death only grew stronger. His enormous spirit to persevere that had served him well for so long was not open to – or capable of – allowing him to die.
Like many of you, I don’t have much experience reflecting on death. When the topic does come up with friends, I notice that many even consider it morbid or unhealthy to think about death and dying.
When did we begin to distance death from our everyday lives? When did we cross from preparing for death as a part of life to avoiding the subject whenever possible?
While there are countless reasons for the change in thinking, there is no doubt that medical and pharmaceutical advances, private and government insurance programs, sophisticated technology, the dispersion of families away from home, higher disposable incomes, and increased media have worked together to influence the ways we have shifted dramatically in our attitudes toward death and dying as a normal part of life.
In days past, death was a natural part of the community and church worship. It was present and concrete – even in the Easter service. In an essay in “First Things,” author Carl Trueman writes, “The congregants left each week having faced the deepest reality of their own destinies. Perhaps, it is ironic, but the church that confronts people with the reality of the shortness of life lived under the shadow of death prepares them for resurrection better than the church that goes straight to resurrection triumphalism without the awkward mortality bit.”
But now our churches are reluctant to address it. Trueman writes that we want either to ignore the topic altogether or mask it with triviality and sentimentality. Instead of preparing people for death, there is a demand that pastors smooth it over with songs and sermons that focus on life.
Equally ironic is the data showing that terminally ill patients who have not talked frankly about their death – with their physicians, pastors and families – are more likely to choose the most aggressive (and sometimes desperate) treatments in the final weeks of care.
Physicians are trained to use every treatment, test and technology to prolong life. Patients expect their pastors to pray for miraculous healing. And families feel undue guilt about not doing everything possible.
Our obsession with the “abundant life” here has made it more difficult to let go of life when it becomes little more than physical survival. We have convinced ourselves there is nothing natural about having a full life and leaving.
Wendell Berry writes, “And yet love must confront death, and accept it, and learn from it. Only in confronting death can earthly love learn its true extent, its immortality. Any definition of health that is not silly must include death. The world of love includes death, suffers it, and triumphs over it.”
Two weeks before my father died, while sitting beside his bed as he slept, was the first time I began to consider how I wanted to die if I had a choice. I settled on something that resembles more of what Berry has written so beautifully in “Three Elegaic Poems“:
Let him escape hospital and doctor,
the manners and odors of strange places,
the dispassionate skills of experts.
Let him go free of tubes and needles,
public corridors, the surgical white
of life dwindled to poor pain.
Foreseeing the possibility of life without
possibility of joy, let him give it up.
Let him die in one of the old rooms
of his living, no stranger near him.
Let him go in peace out of the bodies
of his life –
flesh and marriage and household.
From the wide vision of his own windows
let him go out of sight; and the final
time and light of his life’s place be
last seen before his eyes’ slow
opening in the earth.
Let him go like one familiar with the way
into the wooded and tracked and
furrowed hill, his body.
I stand at the cistern in front of the old barn
in the darkness, in the dead of winter,
the night strangely warm, the wind blowing,
rattling an unlatched door.
I draw the cold water up out of the ground,
At the house the light is still waiting.
An old man I’ve loved all my life is dying
in his bed there. He is going
slowly down from himself.
In final obedience to his life, he follows
his body out of our knowing.
Only his hands, quiet on the sheet, keep
a painful resemblance to what they no longer are.
He goes free of the earth.
The sun of his last day sets
clear in the sweetness of his liberty.
The earth recovers from his dying,
the hallow of his life remaining
in all his death leaves.
Radiances know him. Grown lighter
than breath, he is set free
in our remembering. Grown brighter
than vision, he goes dark
into the life of the hill
that holds his peace.
He’s hidden among all that is,
and cannot be lost.