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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Some Day We'll All Be Dead

Some day we will all indeed be dead. None of us knows when or how that will happen. We probably agree with the bumper sticker that says "When I die, I want to go in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car." The truth is that we have very little control over how we die, but what we can control is how prepared we are for the moment when it arrives.

Given the many advances in medical care over the last few decades, the truth is that we are living longer and longer. The truth also is that medical care now has the ability to keep our bodies apparently alive even after our minds and our consciousness have left the body. Despite this, many medical professionals seem to lack the ability to forthrightly address end-of-life issues, including those that arise when the time comes to discontinue life support. They tend to use euphemisms and speaking directly about "quality of life," and "comfort measures." While their desire not to be abrasive or shock people may be commendable, the truth is the people who are uninitiated to the subtle language the medical community prefers to use at times like this may very well miss the point altogether. A physician can believe that she is telling the family they need to face the choice to withdraw life support while talking around the issue because, in fact, she herself has not learned to face anything beyond clinical death. She may face death clinically with great efficiency, but that is very different from coming to terms with death. And so she believes she is helping the family when in truth she's only confusing them and making it more difficult for them to understand the choices they are facing on behalf of a loved one.

You and I will die one day. The great failure of Western religion is that it runs away from this truth, and in doing so fails to prepare its constituents for the transition into whatever lies beyond this life. As noted above, the medical community, with the exception of hospice and palliative care professionals, also fails to prepare its constituents and their families for the transition into whatever lies beyond this life. That's not only very sad, it's completely unacceptable. We need to examine our beliefs forthrightly and explore death long before we are confronted by it. In the East, monks and nuns meditate in cemeteries, charnel grounds, and where cremations are performed. People tend to die at home, and the families wash the bodies of their loved ones as a last gift and gesture of respect. The body is often kept in the home for visitation and the equivalent of funeral services. In the West, we attempt to sanitize death by hiding it away in nursing homes, hospitals, and funeral homes. We prepare bodies for viewing by making them up so that it appears that the deceased is only taking a nap while wearing clown makeup. While I am certainly not in favor of traumatizing anyone, I don't think that there could be a greater disparity in practice between the East and the West. I believe we do ourselves and our loved ones a tremendous disservice through our attitudes toward death and our subsequent inability to be present with them during that most important transition.

Ironically, we so fear that last transition that there is a growing movement in this country to beat death to the punch by committing suicide before death arrives naturally. That movement is based in fear and ignorance. We fear our death because we are ignorant of it and of palliative care and hospice services which allow us to die with dignity and minimal discomfort in a way that suicide never can. I am so convinced of this need for those of us in the West to come to a healthier relationship with death that I intend to make it a primary focus of my personal ministry. I intend to lead my denomination, The UAC, to a similar focus so that we might help others come to a healthier understanding of perhaps the greatest spiritual transition in our lives. Won't you join us?

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