death

Jim Wallis 3-21-2014
Courtesy Westboro Baptist Church

Fred Phelps. Courtesy Westboro Baptist Church

Fred Phelps died early Thursday morning. Phelps was best known for his deeply rooted hatred and promulgating the tasteless slogan “God Hates Fags.” His little group of mostly extended family members that comprised the 59-year-old Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, carried their signs with such ugly and painful statements all over the country. Phelps’ small cult got the most attention for their protests of military and other high-profile funerals, claiming that the slain soldiers deserved to die as a consequence of God’s judgment against America’s tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Such shameful and angry messages, understandably, caused great pain among the mourners and family members grieving their loved ones.

Caleb Wilde is an undertaker with a media presence. Photo by Andrew Hostetler, courtesy Caleb Wilde.

Most days, Caleb Wilde is a funeral director, discreetly making burial arrangements and guiding survivors in a time of loss.

But in his off hours Wilde has another, less conventional online side, in which he shares candid observations, irreverent thoughts on death, and photos that sometimes skirt the edge of outrageous.

Wilde is an undertaker with a media presence seemingly tailor-made for the age of disclosure.

His blog, “Confessions of a Funeral Director” has more than 80,000 monthly readers, a Twitter following of more than 16,000 and a Facebook page that attracts well over half a million visitors a week.

Adam Ericksen 2-04-2014
Philip Seymour Hoffman at a football game in 2011, Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com

Philip Seymour Hoffman at a football game in 2011, Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com

Tom Junod of Esquire wrote an insightful piece about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman titled “ Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Secret: The cost of holding up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves .” The whole article is worth reading, but these words are especially important:

"There was no actor, in our time, who more ably suggested that each of us is the sum of our secrets … no actor who better let us know what he knew, which is that when each of us returns alone to our room, all bets are off. He used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves; indeed, his whole career might be construed as a pre-emptive plea for forgiveness to those with the unfortunate job of cleaning up what he — and we — might leave behind."

In his roles, Hoffman played unacceptable, despicable, and broken characters. In other words, he played our cultural scapegoats. But the beauty of Hoffman’s work is that he humanized our scapegoats. Of course, his characters were unacceptable because they were guilty of being repellent jerks, underserving of love or sympathy, which is exactly why they made good scapegoats. The function of a scapegoat is to unite us in hatred against them, so the scapegoat who seems to us to be completely guilty, like a cartoon villain, the better sense of unity we can form against them. The best scapegoat is one who even agrees with us about just how terrible he is. As Junod writes, Hoffman “used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves.”

Charita Ford 1-31-2014

Does our theology have anything to say to African-American gang girls? It should.

Julie Polter 1-05-2014

Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams / Social Music by Jon Batiste and Stay Human / What Do We Tell the Children: Talking to Kids About Death and Dying by Joseph M. Primo / The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church by Phyllis Tickle and John M. Sweeney

Brian McLaren 1-03-2014

Jesus' teaching about hell flipped popular imagery of the afterlife upside down—and offered a radical, transformative vision of God.

Cynthia J. Martens 12-31-2013
Chrstphr/Shutterstock

God does hear us. Chrstphr/Shutterstock

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be chosen, and conversely how we choose to be chosen. I’ve also been thinking about life, death, choices, and what happens to us after our earthly body dies. Do we remember who we are here? Do we remember our friends, lovers, enemies, acquaintances? Do we remember events, important moments, unimportant moments, or forgotten moments? I believe we do. The problem is that all we know and have experienced about the Divine is limited by our own thoughts and words.

Mandela photo, left, courtesy www.sagoodnews.co.za, Jesus statue, right, court. Onderwijsgek. Both via Wikimedia Commons/RNS

Few would deny Nelson Mandela’s greatness, but one of Britain’s best-known journalists, Dominic Lawson, has taken the media to task for comparing South Africa’s first black president to Jesus.

Writing on the eve of the departure of world leaders to Johannesburg to attend a memorial service for Mandela, who died last week, Lawson wrote in the Daily Mail: “He was a giant — but how absurd for the BBC to compare Mandela to Christ.”

Lawson singled out BBC presenter Evan Davis who told listeners on a Dec. 7 radio program that Mandela should be ranked alongside Jesus in “the pantheon of virtue.”

The BBC radio program included former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who emphatically dismissed the notion of Mandela being on par with the founder of Christianity.

Margaret Benefiel 12-06-2013

Republic of South Africa postage stamp. Circa 2008. catwalker/Shutterstock

The world lost a hero yesterday.  Nelson Mandela, 95, died at his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, after a long illness. 

From prisoner of 27 years to President of his country, Mandela exhibited courage and vision for a country that had feared a bloodbath in its transition to a post-apartheid society. Mandela united the country through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

A less-noted aspect of Mandela’s work was his founding of The Elders on his 89th birthday. With a mission of “offer[ing] their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.” Mandela gathered Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Muhammed Yunus, and others to harvest the wisdom of their years for the good of the planet. Founding member Peter Gabriel further explained: “In traditional societies, the elders always had a role in conflict resolution, long-term thinking, and applying wisdom wherever it was needed. We are moving to this global village and yet we don’t have our global elders. The Elders can be a group who have the trust of the world, who can speak freely, be fiercely independent, and respond fast and flexibly in conflict situations.”

“Personal Preference by Religion and Race/Ethnicity” chart courtesy of Pew Research Center. Via RNS

Death may be inevitable, but one in three Americans – including most blacks and Hispanics – want doctors to never quit fighting it.

And that number has nearly doubled in 23 years, a new survey finds.

In 1990, 15 percent of U.S. adults said doctors should do everything possible for a patient, even in the face of incurable illness and pain. Today, 31 percent hold that view, according to a report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

The majority of U.S. adults (66 percent) still say there are circumstances when a patient should be allowed to die. At the same time, however, the never-say-die view calling for nonstop aggressive treatment has increased across every religion, race, ethnicity, and level of education.

Debbie McLeod 11-05-2013

Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic. Knopf.

LaVonne Neff 10-29-2013

Experienced as the Butlers were in suffering and loss, they were not prepared for the technologically enhanced torments of old age.

Knocking on Heaven's Door tells what can happen when a person's mind and body endure a series of shocks that would naturally lead to decline and death — except that, through various technological interventions, the body is not allowed to decline along with the mind.

In Professor Butler's case, a major stroke wiped out most of his ability to function independently and set him on the road to dementia. At the same time, his heart was slowing down. A year after his stroke, over the opposition of his primary care physician, Butler was fitted with a pacemaker. His cardiologist strongly recommended it. He needed hernia surgery, the doctor said, and his heart was not likely strong enough to survive the operation. So he had the pacemaker installed, he had the surgery, and he was rewarded with another six years of increasingly hellish existence — not only for himself, but also for his wife and his daughter. His mind was shot. His body would not do what he wanted it to do. But his artificially assisted heart kept relentlessly ticking away.

Katherine Burgess 10-22-2013

Novices Joseph Eichorn, left and Dustin Bernard move a handmade wooden casket. Photo via RNS, by Ted Jackson/The Times-Picayune.

A group of Catholic monks can continue selling their handmade caskets after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Louisiana funeral directors.

“We really can now move forward without worrying about being shut down,” said Deacon Mark Coudrain, manager of St. Joseph Woodworks in Covington, La. “This is going to affect a lot of other people. A lot of people are going to have opportunities to do things that are their legal right to generate revenue.”

In a little-noticed ruling on Oct. 15, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case between the brothers of St. Joseph Abbey and the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.

Shane Claiborne 10-22-2013
Photo courtesy of Shane Claiborne

A mother who lost her child to gun violence beats on the barrel of a handgun from the streets. Photo courtesy of Shane Claiborne

Yesterday, I read about the 2-year old child who shot herself by accident in North Carolina over the weekend. Then I read about the horror of another school shooting in Nevada. Only hours later — shots rang out again on our block in North Philadelphia, for the second time this week.  This time a bullet went through the window of one of the houses owned by our non-profit.

I was talking to a friend about my anger over the 300 lives lost in our city this year to gun violence. With the most sincere intentions, my friend said in an attempt to console me:  “It’s just the way the world is.” 

I’m not willing to give up that easy. It may be the way the world is today, but it doesn’t have to be the way the world is tomorrow.

Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

Hands expressing symbolic sympathies while holding each other. Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

As we go through life, most of us manage to acquire some small measure of expertise about daily living. In general, the more times we’ve had to undertake a task, the better we get at it.

Yet in this one area, we are all fumbling newbies, approaching every funeral as if it were our first. We think about what we could possibly say at the funeral home, or what we’ll write on the Facebook tribute page — and words fail us.

I’ve gradually learned to fight the urge to try to make those in pain feel better.

Phil Haslanger 6-05-2013
Phil Haslanger (l), and his friend Mike. Photo courtesy Phil Haslanger

Phil Haslanger (l), and his friend Mike. Photo courtesy Phil Haslanger

My friend Mike died last week.

We were the same age. We grew up together in Marinette in northeast Wisconsin. Worked our way through Boy Scouts together. Played at each other’s houses. Studied in the same classrooms. And then, over time, we drifted apart. Until this past year. That’s when I learned that Mike was dying of cancer.

In less than 12 months, we re-established a friendship and Mike and his wife, Nancy, taught me amazing lessons about living with the prospect of dying.

In our initial contacts, Nancy wrote of Mike: 

“He is doing well with his treatments. I am amazed, each day, how well he handles this journey we are on. Never once have we asked ‘why us?’ We feel so blessed that we have each day to love each other and enjoy our retirement one day at a time. Not everyone is so lucky to have a long goodbye with the one they love.“

Eric Barreto 5-21-2013
Brett Deering/Getty Images

Debris covers the ground after a powerful tornado ripped Moore, Okla., on May 20. Brett Deering/Getty Images

“O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.” And from those heavens descended a deadly cloud.

“Out of the mouths of babes and infants ...” The children of Plaza Towers Elementary?

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Indeed that is the question that troubles the heart of the faithful in times like these.

Can we still praise God? If so, how do we start? Can we possibly understand what happened in Moore, Okla.?

Don’t trust anyone who claims to comprehend the meaning of this storm. Don’t trust anyone who points with absolute certainty to a single cause for this storm. Don’t trust anyone who treats a tornado as anything but indiscriminate and cruel. These tragedies are not punishments or object lessons. Such natural forces do not reach their conclusion with a pat moral or a simple “they lived happily ever after.”

Martin L. Smith 5-11-2013

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

Kay Stewart 5-10-2013
Katie and Kay, photo courtesy Kay and Gordon Stewart

Katie and Kay, photo courtesy Kay and Gordon Stewart

Yesterday Kay Stewart shared this at the cemetery as we laid to rest the ashes of her first-born daughter Katherine (“Katie”).

For Christ to have gone before us,
To have kept us from ultimate sadness,
To be our brother, our advocate,
The One who ushers in the Kingdom,
Here
And the One to come,

Does not keep us from our digging today.
We still gather here and throw the dirt on our sacred dust,
We take the shovel like all those gone before us
And surrender to the Unknowable—
The place where
Love and Beauty and Kindness grow wild.
Where sorrow has no needs,
Where there is all beginning and
Nothing ends.

...

Mark Osler 4-30-2013
Higher ground sign, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com

Higher ground sign, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com

Here in the Upper Midwest (I live in Minnesota), the importance of higher ground is not just metaphorical, as snowmelt-fed flood waters rise to envelope communities. People, quite literally, are forced to higher ground by floods.

It is interesting, too, what happens when that higher ground, the literal higher ground, is sought. Necessarily, there are more people in a smaller area; that’s the nature of it. Diverse groups are forced together. We know these images from the news:  the floating cars, and then the displaced people together in a school gym, talking.  The power of that second image is that it shows an unexpected, shared space. People have grabbed what they could and fled to this place, often by walking uphill, and now they find themselves together.   

When the metaphorical waters rise and destroy what we know or count on, people do the same thing, but that higher ground is a broad mutual faith that encompasses the belief that there is something greater than ourselves, that there must be a reason for these tragedies; we turn to God. Recently, we have seen this happen in Boston and in West, Texas. At the memorial for the victims of the explosion in West, held at Baylor University, President Barack Obama spoke openly about faith.  

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