death

What Happens When We Accept Our Own Mortality?

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.

Supreme Court Affirms Monks’ Right to Sell Caskets

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.

Bringing America Back to Life

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.

Why Do Condolence Notes Never Get Easier to Write?

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.

'God is Good. God is Great. Hope is Eternal:' Lessons in Life and Dying

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.“

Majesty and Tragedy in Oklahoma

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.”

A Mother's Love

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.

...

What We Find On Higher Ground

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.  

‘Death Cafes’ Normalize a Difficult, Not Morbid, Topic

Cafe scene, kgelati / Shutterstock.com

Cafe scene, kgelati / Shutterstock.com

No one wants to talk about death at the dinner table, at a soccer game, or at a party, says Lizzy Miles, a social worker in Columbus, Ohio.

But sometimes people need to talk about the “taboo” topic and when that happens, they might not be able to find someone who will listen, she says.

“Whenever people hear I’m a hospice worker, they talk to me about death. It doesn’t matter if I’m on an airplane, gambling in Las Vegas, or in a grocery store line,” she said. “I really see firsthand the need to let people talk. It’s my gift to others.”

Her gift sparked the birth of “death cafes” in the U.S., a trend that started in England and is about to take off across America, she said.

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