Death and Dying

Cycles of Death and Rebirth

In Ceremonies of the Seasons, Jennifer Cole writes, “All calendars are founded upon a wish to organize our experience of time into manageable units—especially the year, with its recognizable seasonal landmarks.” She goes on to point to a “curious contradiction” about the movement of time: We are surrounded by “reliable repetition” and “constant change.” Just think of the tidal and lunar cycles, animal migrations, and vegetation cycles that mark the passage of time with regularity.

As I read Cole’s observations, I pondered the fact that our calendars tell us stories, and those stories can in turn help us think about why we have developed elaborate rituals to mark some celebrations and not others.

I notice three things about November. First, in the United States, November contains three civic “high holy days”: Election Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving. Second, if we think globally, we’ll notice that during late autumn there are many celebrations that honor the ending of the harvest, the turning of life toward death, and the choice of good over evil—Day of the Dead, Halloween, Diwali, All Saints’ Day, and Chung Yeung are all examples.

In our society we idolize militarism and greed, routinely forgetting that our nation’s prosperity comes at the expense of others’ lives and welfare. Is there a way for us to recover a deep sense of the life-death-life cycle so central to our faith—and an inescapable part of all life—that can also birth social change?

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

November 4

Truthful Seeing

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4;

Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

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Sojourners Magazine November 2007
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'This Land is Home to Me.'

Jesuit priest Joseph R. Hacala, 61, former special assistant to the secretary of the Department of Health and Urban Development during the Clinton administration, died of a rare organ disease in February while receiving care at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Hacala, a West Virginia native, had served most recently as the president of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. Hacala's first mission after his ordination in 1975 was to the poverty-stricken coal fields of southern West Virginia. A fierce commitment to the poor and to social justice shaped his ministry throughout his life.

Prior to his work at HUD, Hacala was executive director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and director of the National Office of Jesuit Social Ministries, and he served pastorally at St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C. He was profoundly impacted by the Appalachian Catholic Bishops' pastoral letter, "This Land is Home to Me," issued in February 1975, which declares, "The living God, the Lord whom we worship, is the God of the poor."

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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End-of-Life Ethics

As anyone who has undergone major surgery might attest,

As anyone who has undergone major surgery might attest, medical technology available to keep the human body functioning through trauma, treatment, and healing - means that we often take for granted today - would have been viewed as little short of a miracle even a few decades ago.

But many of us also assert that we would not want to be "kept alive by tubes" if we were in the final days of a terminal illness or considered to be in a deep state of unconsciousness with no hope of recovery. A "living will" - a written declaration of the treatment one does or does not want to receive if circumstances leave one unable to communicate - is one way to make this desire known. In the absence of such an advance directive, the treatment decisions fall to the patient's next of kin.

What, however, is "treatment" and what is simply nonnegotiable, humane care? This spring Pope John Paul II, at a meeting focused on care of patients in a vegetative state, declared that "the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act," and is, as such, "morally obligatory."

These statements run counter to the teachings of many Catholic ethicists and current U.S. legal interpretation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that feeding tubes that deliver nutrition and hydration to a person in a vegetative state are a medical treatment that can be withdrawn if there is "clear and convincing" evidence that the person would not want his or her life prolonged under such conditions.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2004
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Button Your Shirt Before You Go

Dead woman loving him
from her grave.
Is this the end of love?

In the weeks after her funeral
he would lie across his bed like
a clean shirt that had fallen from
a hanger in the back of a closet.

Even after he learns about her death,
when he knows she is not home or
maybe not in the mood to talk,
he calls on her phone to listen to her voice
on the answering machine
reminding him to leave a message.

Tonight he undresses and decides
to love the dead.
He walks across the room and pulls
her book from the shelf.

On every page a suicide note.
On every page a lullaby.

E. Ethelbert Miller's most recent publication is How We Sleep on the Nights We Don't Make Love (Curbstone, 2004). He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2004
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How to Live Forever

The title of Studs Terkel's new book of oral histories—Will the Circle Be Unbroken?—is borrowed from a traditional gospel hymn. In the 1930s, A.P. Carter borrowed that same song, adapted it, and put his name on it for his group The Carter Family. It's an unusual gospel number, if only for the fact that the title is a question. "Will we see our loved ones again?" it asks. The lyric seems to answer in the affirmative. "There's a better home a'waiting, in the sky Lord, in the sky." But—like the fate of the flag in "The Star Spangled Banner"—the question dangles, "Will we get there?" Neither the keepers of gospel tradition, nor A.P. Carter, ever punctuated the title as a question. The question mark might be an overt sign of doubt, or even some sort of jinx.

Well, the question mark is there on the cover of Terkel's book, as large as life, and it's all over his text as well. In the book's 60-plus interviews, an assortment of ministers, doctors, police officers, AIDS sufferers, bereaved parents, near-death survivors, activists, artists, and people on the street wrestle with the ultimate big question. What does it mean to know that we will all die?

For more than 30 years, Studs Terkel has been documenting the dreams, wisdom, and dramas of everyday people in a series of topical oral history books. From Hard Times and Working to The Good War and Coming of Age, Terkel's books have covered the bewildering waterfront of the 20th century. At the end of that century, in his late 80s, with his own body weakened by heart surgery, the only subject remaining was death.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2002
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The Grim Sweeper

Making caskets is fine. But who's going to clean up this mess? Inside their light, fragrant workshop, a handful of monks are hard at work. They're planing. They're ripping. They're joining, gluing, sanding, and finishing coffins, caskets, and urns made to order, then fitting them with shiny metal handles and discrete brass plates that say "Trappist Caskets, New Melleray Abbey."

Death is a way of life for these Iowan monks. They do everything from logging the trees on their extensive timberland to lining the caskets with white muslin. "There's nothing pretentious or false here," says general manager Sam Mulgrew. "It's straightforward—just heavy wood and slow, loving workmanship."

The Trappists (1-888-433-6934; trappistcaskets.com) offer reasonable prices and provide an alternative to the mass-produced caskets that dominate the market. The caskets are accepted by all U.S. funeral homes and cemeteries. They can be shipped on time anywhere in the country. Trappist Caskets are also suitable as low coffee tables until the time comes for their final use.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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Living a Good Death

"I’ve never done this before," says Joyce Kerr, her voice betraying only a slight waver. She is talking with her doctor about dying. A strong and dignified woman in her 60s, Kerr has decided to stop treatment for ovarian cancer and is preparing to leave the hospital for the final time to die at home with her family. Her doctor, a specialist in end-of-life care, reassures her that there is no "right" way to die.

What Kerr seeks—and what studies show most of us desire—is a death free of pain, at home, surrounded by loved ones, receiving support and respect. By these criteria, Kerr does end up with a good death. However, as things stand now in the United States, too many of us and those we love will not be so fortunate (even if we are spared sudden death). Why?

Veteran journalist Bill Moyers takes up this question and offers hope for change in a four-part PBS documentary series, "On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying in America" (premieres September 12; check your local listings). This program gives intimate and gripping glimpses of the final days of Joyce Kerr and others, free of sentimentality or sensationalism. Woven throughout is an accessible primer on the ethical, personal, financial, and bureaucratic struggles that the dying and their families face, as well as examples of innovative efforts to better care for all involved at the end of life.

Episode 1, "Living With Dying," shows several people doing just that. Their stories introduce some of the major challenges to a "good" death: the scarcity of medical training and resources directed toward end of life care, inadequate or nonexistent health insurance, and the common fear or denial of death that postpones needed planning and engagement.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2000
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Shop Before You Drop

Know your rights and options. Can you bring a casket purchased elsewhere to a funeral home? Is embalming required? The Federal Trade Commission provides information on the laws regulating funeral goods and services at www.ftc.gov/bcp/rulemaking/funeral/index.htm or call toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP. Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, by Lisa Carlson (Upper Access, 1998) covers a wide range of approaches to making funeral arrangements and has state-by-state listings of legal requirements, state-specific consumer concerns, institutions for body donation, and other resources.

Comparison shop. In a 1999 survey of Fort Worth, Texas funeral homes, the price for an immediate burial (no viewing) ranged from $825 to $3,600. So avoid a rip-off by phoning or visiting funeral homes to compare prices. Some local memorial societies can provide a region-specific baseline of fair prices for goods and services. The AARP also provides consumer advice for funerals and related expenses at www.aarp.org/confacts/money/funeral.html. You can also price caskets online—www.directcasket.com is one such retailer. If you are making arrangements due to an unexpected death, have someone who isn’t grieving accompany you to help you ask questions and resist any sales pressure. A specific caveat: Don’t buy "protective seal" caskets. These are sold under the pretense of protecting the body, but because of the action of anaerobic bacteria, reality is quite gruesomely otherwise.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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We All Have to Die

Cheryl Grossman and her husband used to laugh together about all the "rigmarole" that most funeral services involved. So when he died suddenly in October 1997, Cheryl knew that he would want the arrangements to be simple. Grossman, with a friend to support her, went to a funeral home to arrange a direct cremation. The funeral director kept "upselling"—pressing her to consider more expensive alternatives.

"Had I not had a friend who went with me, and had I not had a firm resolve, I probably would have signed anything," she says. "To be manipulated in that way at that time was one of the most obscene things I’d ever experienced."

Cheryl Grossman’s funeral home encounter is a common one. Not so common is how she took her experience to church—and how her church embraced it. Cheryl’s Catholic parish, St. Catherine of Siena in Austin, Texas, has offered a diverse array of practical and pastoral supports to the grieving for some time. Last year Grossman and two other parishioners helped create a death and funeral resource booklet that gathers information on all applicable parish ministries and other area resources in a convenient portable form. It includes specific information on affordable funeral options, planning sheets, and step-by-step advice for those dealing with a death in the family (see "Reclaiming Our Rites," p. 33).

Such a booklet is a simple, straightforward thing, but not every church would know how to welcome it. Most American Christians, including clergy, are almost as comfortable talking about the practical, concrete details of funerals as they are talking about the practical, concrete details of sex. In other words, the topic doesn’t come up much. And unlike sex, funeral planning isn’t a hot topic outside of church either.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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Reclaiming Our Rites

As someone who’s had several deaths in my family, I can testify that prayers and casseroles are both helpful to the grieving process. But they’re not the only things that church people have to offer.

Members and pastors of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Austin, Texas, provide the bereaved with babysitting, transportation help, meals, liturgy planning, accompaniment to the funeral home, a post-funeral reception, bereavement groups, and counseling. Last year parishioners Carole Hawkins, Bob Leidlein, and Cheryl Grossman put together a resource booklet (incorporating materials from the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society) after having shared their "funeral stories" with one another. They credit Father Oliver Johnson for actively encouraging parishioners to draw from their experiences and create ministries for the whole community.

Grossman is involved in plans for a diocesan-wide conference on the pastoral response to end-of-life issues. "This opens the forum to a large geographic area and a diverse community," she explains. "Folks without many financial or education resources will have access to a wide variety of experience and information."

Smaller churches can also offer help. An Episcopal church in Kansas included information about funeral planning in a Lenten study series on death and dying. Five Nazarene churches in a community came together to negotiate a special rate for their members with a local funeral home. An adult Sunday school class might take on death and funerals. Beyond the News: Facing Death, a 34-minute video and print study guide produced by Mennonite Media might be a useful resource (1-800-999-3534; www.thirdway.com), or check with your denomination for other source material.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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