Monday, March 12, 2012

Dying well is a dying art

I have actual proof to say that one of the things that people are most interested and intrigued with is death.  Since I began this weekly blog in 2009, I have written about three blogs that deal specifically with the topic of death and dying.  The visits to each blog is tracked by a blog counter, and it shows undeniable proof that these three blogs have garnered the most visits.  It’s in the thousands.  The one on suicide is a chart-topper.  Death is something that so many of us want to know more about, are fascinated about, or are just very afraid to face.  Either that, or it’s a combination of all three.

Could there be a difference in the way that people have faced sickness and death from times past, as compared to the way that we deal with them now?  I am currently reading an insightful book on “Sin, Death and the Devil”, a book written by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson.   In the chapter ‘Sinsick’, by contributor Stanley Hauerwas, he astutely posits that most people, even those who are religious, seem to betray the hidden fact that deep inside of us, a lot of us are atheists.

Asking people how they want to die, he says, can prove this.  Almost all of the people he asked said that they want to die quickly, painlessly, in their sleep, and without being a burden.  And what was even more insightful was that he said that we do not want to be a burden because we can no longer trust our children.  He says, “we want to die quickly, painlessly, and in our sleep because when we die, we do not want to know we are dying”.

And there I think, Hauerwas has struck gold.  In my own conversations about death and dying with practicing, believing Catholics, this was the same kind of response that I got.  But I hadn’t made that connection with atheism in the rather bold way that Hauerwas does.  All of them seem to want to die almost invisibly.  Most of them want a sudden death.  But contrast this to a not too distant past, and we will realize that a sudden death was one of the most feared thing for our ancestors.  They prayed to St Joseph incessantly that they would die a happy death, which does not mean an instant, sudden and painless death.  Our elders would fear a sudden death because it meant that they would die without having had the chance of a reconciliation with their fellow man, neighbours, the church, and with God.  With the way that so many want to suddenly die, it’s either most of us are living such upright and just lives already, making us so ready to meet God the way we are, or we no longer fear the judgment of God.  I would love to think it’s the former, but alas, I really think it’s the latter.

When we really know who we are in the sight of who God is, we will never ever want a sudden death, and to die without trusted friends and family around.  We have been trained almost in a bad way, that it is wrong to burden our family and friends in any way, and this has led to so many people keeping silent about their cancer prognosis from their loved ones, when often, it is really the community that makes the transition from this life to the next a smooth one.  The Christian sense of charity becomes much heightened when we are given the golden opportunity to bring someone to the threshold of life. 

 Why has the world become the way it is?  I think any of you reading this can come up with a whole host of reasons why we have degenerated into being so ensconced with our selves, our egos and our individualism.  Some may even quote (albeit wrongly) that we come into the world alone, and we leave alone, so why bother the community?  When we put the phrase “bother” and “community” in the same sentence, we show a terribly twisted and warped understanding of what true community is. 

But a hidden truth (albeit an irony) is that after one dies, there seems to be a silent hope that there will be a large turnout at the wakes and funeral services and Masses for the deceased.  There is a silent knowing that one needs the prayers of the community at this ‘border situation’ in life, but just cannot bare to ask them to stay around when one is really at the borders of life itself.  Some even go through all sorts of troubles to lay great plans as to how one must be dressed and made-up in the casket, the ‘theme’ of the flowers, and of course, that ubiquitous framed photo at the foot of the casket which has to somehow make one look at least ten years younger than one really is.  At funeral wakes, I sometimes wonder if a wrong photograph had been on display, or that the ‘make-over’ was more a case of being ‘over-made’.  But what is far more important and pressing at such poignant moments is actually the community’s praying and faithful presence help one to be present before God.  

In truth, the Catholic sense of life and death are really not separated that much.  We see so much connection between the two that we are constantly either remembering the dead in our liturgy, or praying that we die to ourselves and to sinfulness.  Because the liturgy is the community at prayer, we are really entrusting our well-being with the community, though we may not be aware of it.

Indeed, Hauerwas has a point.  We need to really begin to trust our children more if we are to change the way we look at death (and life).  Had there been more active hand-holding in life, we would be more willing to be handed over to life at death.  Those of us who truly trust our children and our community enough, will never hope to die in secret.  Just as it takes a village to raise a child, the church also believes strongly that it takes a village to bring one to God.


  1. Father, This is a really great article for many people to read. It dispels the common myths and fears people have about dying. my mother died at home under hospice care from cancer in 1993. We were all with her through her last days, and her death was a beautiful passing. I like the part that we do not come into this world alone and should not depart this world alone either.

    I put a link to this article on my blog under "God Reads from Other Bloggers" to share it.

  2. I was told off by a priest for being selfish when I said I would not reveal to anyone else, other than immediate family members, if I had a terminal disease. I didn't even want a wake or a funeral mass after I died. I thought that I was being considerate.

    Now I see how warped my thinking had been.

    We're always called to do things as a community, never as a solo being; we're all parts of one body. Just as we celebrate the Eucharist, baptisms, ordinations, confirmations, marriages as a community, we should also administer to the sick & dying as a community (even the sacrament of reconciliation used to be a public affair in the centuries past). We should live life as one body.

    I want to share this sentence which I encountered in the chapter pertaining anointing of the sick in "Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments" by Joseph Martos -

    "Disease & death are not to be feared but faced; they are not to be escaped but lived through."

    Thank you, Father, for your sharing.

  3. I like the title of your post. If I were to title it, most likely it would be something blasé, like – “What is a Christian way to die? ”

    We are often told that at death, life is ended but it is not finished....for it is a border situation where as you said we are on the ‘threshold of life’ and it is the community that helps the dying to make this smooth transition. I couldn’t agree more. But how does the dying go about ‘living’ this dying? The intensity of life and for life is increased by the awareness of its awful is really living life at the edge.

    It helps when the community rallies round in a show of support and understanding – especially at prayer. It helps when.... through the Church’s rich contemplative learns that one’s life is lived through a succession of present moments and whatever time one has is all the time there is – and it is enough. What one has to do is to slow down the pace of each successive moment and that is why Psalm 46 resonates palpably in the heart of the one on the journey. Even the helplessness that comes in the wake of each new day is deliberately savoured – for everything now is dependent on grace.

    However, I agree with one Christian writer about death being a private thing ( unlike dying) – not to be shared outside the family circle for it cannot be shared with those who “ did not know the inner rooms of the life whose doors are now closing...” Your talk about the art of dying also made me think of what Van Gogh said about death re his famous painting of “Wheatfield with Reaper” ( we were made to study art appreciation in our secondary school! I like his paintings too.) He wrote -

    ‘’I saw in this reaper the image of death, in the sense that humanity could be the wheat being reaped. But in that death, there is nothing sad, it occurs in bright light with a sun drenching everything with a light of spun gold. It is an image of death such as the great book of nature tells us about – but what I sought was the almost, smiling.”

    He sought the almost, smiling - it gives much hope and reminds me of “death will be no more.” ( Rev 21:4)

    God bless you Fr

  4. Good morning Fr. Just being the "kaypoh". How is the readership on this article of yours? Deadening high again?

    Today's world makes us believe death is a defeat. And since our journey towards dying is a passive one (we are no longer active and probably stricken with senility, disease or illness), we are a burden to self and to others. The world wants us to crawl into a corner and rot away.

    However, you have showen us above that the Christian truth is the opposite. I like your twist in the last paragraph "...we would be more willing to be handed over to life at death." This is the secret to dying well. We should see our last days as entering into the wound of death so that we can emerge on the other side, which is eternal life. To make this wound less painful, we should be seeking reconciliation with our fellow men, the Church and God. And if we are truly excited about our new life, we should be displaying our faith and hope to the community - "Pray with me, I have cancer and I have hope", "Worship with me as long as you can before Alzheimer gets me", "Look beyond my physical frailties, keep faith with me".

    Live long and die well!