In the Victorian era, jewelry made with hair was all the rage. In 1854, the novelist Wilkie Collins wrote that bracelets made of human hair were “in England one of the commonest ornaments of woman’s wear.” Ten years later, Charles Dickens wrote that a man’s watch fob made of hair was the real mark of middle-class respectability.
Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic were particularly mesmerized by the hair of the dead. Victorian literature scholar Deborah Lutz explores “the materiality of death and its artifacts” of the era, finding antecedents in the Christian reliquary tradition, when body parts of saints were considered magical. Protestantism and secularization shifted this fascination toward the sought-after body parts of royals and the very famous (like Napoleon, whose penis is supposedly now in New Jersey). By the middle of the nineteenth century, this long Western tradition had become “increasingly secular, personal, and private.” And concentrated on hair.
Loved ones and relatives could give hair as tokens of love and friendship. Family members or lovers could twine their hair together. After a person’s death, their hair remained; as the Whitman exhibits show, well-preserved hair can last a long time. Hair was a tangible keepsake of a life, and of a body. Perhaps it imparted a sense that you might meet again.
Lutz writes that such relics “work as traces of a life and body completed and disappeared, in this sense something like last words, by they also serve as frames or fragments of the moment of loss.” These present reminders of those who have died speak of a “desire to see death as not permanent, in that material remains might be proof that the loved one still exists somewhere, somehow.” Relic worship also shows a willingness “to dwell in and with the moment of loss itself, to linger over this evidence of death’s presence woven into the texture of life at all turns.”
Romanticism, the Evangelical revival of the 1830s-40s, and Spiritualism’s rise in the 1850s-1860s, all contributed to this “after-death narrative” and the mid-century popularity of “hairwork.”
Lutz reminds us of the passage in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) when Heathcliff switches his rival Linton’s hair from the locket around the dead Catherine’s neck and replaces it with his own. “Rather than gathering a memento of Catherine for himself, Heathcliff sees to it that a material fragment of his body will go down into the grave with Catherine’s corpse, to intermingle with her flesh.” The notion of the “good death” merges here with the palpable eroticization of death. Of course, Heathcliff’s plans are foiled by Nelly Dean, who twines Linton’s lock around Heathcliff’s—opening “the possibility of a postmortem storm of jealousy.”
Fiction mirrored the times. After her husband’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria had at least eight pieces of jewelry made that incorporated Prince Albert’s hair. The Victorians “found in relic culture a means to respect the irreducible self.” Such a culture, Lutz says, “sees death, and the body itself, as the beginning of stories, not their end.”
Thich Nhat Hanh has done more than perhaps any Buddhist alive today to articulate and disseminate the core Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, kindness, and compassion to a broad global audience. The Vietnamese monk, who has written more than 100 books, is second only to the Dalai Lama in fame and influence.
Nhat Hanh made his name doing human rights and reconciliation work during the Vietnam War, which led Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for a Nobel Prize.
In 2014, Nhat Hanh, who is now 92 years old, had a stroke at Plum Village, the monastery and retreat center in southwest France he founded in 1982 that was also his home base. Though he was unable to speak after the stroke, he continued to lead the community, using his left arm and facial expressions to communicate.
In October 2018, Nhat Hanh stunned his disciples by informing them that he would like to return home to Vietnam to pass his final days at the Tu Hieu root temple in Hue, where he became a monk in 1942 at age 16.
As Time’s Liam Fitzpatrick wrote, Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam for his antiwar activism from 1966 until he was finally invited back in 2005. But his return to his homeland is less about political reconciliation than something much deeper. And it contains lessons for all of us about how to die peacefully and how to let go of the people we love.
When I heard that Nhat Hanh had returned to Vietnam, I wanted to learn more about the decision. So I called up Brother Phap Dung, a senior disciple and monk who is helping to run Plum Village in Nhat Hanh’s absence. (I spoke to Phap Dung in 2016 right after Donald Trump won the presidential election, about how we can use mindfulness in times of conflict.)
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your teacher’s decision to go to Vietnam and how you interpret the meaning of it.
He’s definitely coming back to his roots.
He has come back to the place where he grew up as a monk. The message is to remember we don’t come from nowhere. We have roots. We have ancestors. We are part of a lineage or stream.
It’s a beautiful message, to see ourselves as a stream, as a lineage, and it is the deepest teaching in Buddhism: non-self. We are empty of a separate self, and yet at the same time, we are full of our ancestors.
He has emphasized this Vietnamese tradition of ancestral worship as a practice in our community. Worship here means to remember. For him to return to Vietnam is to point out that we are a stream that runs way back to the time of the Buddha in India, beyond even Vietnam and China.
So he is reconnecting to the stream that came before him. And that suggests the larger community he has built is connected to that stream too. The stream will continue flowing after him.
It’s like the circle that he often draws with the calligraphy brush. He’s returned to Vietnam after 50 years of being in the West. When he first left to call for peace during the Vietnam War was the start of the circle; slowly, he traveled to other countries to do the teaching, making the rounds. And then slowly he returned to Asia, to Indonesia, Hong Kong, China. Eventually, Vietnam opened up to allow him to return three other times. This return now is kind of like a closing of the circle.
It’s also like the light of the candle being transferred, to the next candle, to many other candles, for us to continue to live and practice and to continue his work. For me, it feels like that, like the light is lit in each one of us.
And as one of his senior monks, do you feel like you are passing the candle too?
Before I met Thay in 1992, I was not aware, I was running busy and doing my architectural, ambitious things in the US. But he taught me to really enjoy living in the present moment, that it is something that we can train in.
Now as I practice, I am keeping the candlelight illuminated, and I can also share the practice with others. Now I’m teaching and caring for the monks, nuns, and lay friends who come to our community just as our teacher did.
So he is 92 and his health is fragile, but he is not bedridden. What is he up to in Vietnam?
The first thing he did when he got there was to go to the stupa [shrine], light a candle, and touch the earth. Paying respect like that — it’s like plugging in. You can get so much energy when you can remember your teacher.
He’s not sitting around waiting. He is doing his best to enjoy the rest of his life. He is eating regularly. He even can now drink tea and invite his students to enjoy a cup with him. And his actions are very deliberate.
Once, the attendants took him out to visit before the lunar new year to enjoy the flower market. On their way back, he directed the entourage to change course and to go to a few particular temples. At first, everyone was confused, until they found out that these temples had an affiliation to our community. He remembered the exact location of these temples and the direction to get there. The attendants realized that he wanted to visit the temple of a monk who had lived a long time in Plum Village, France; and another one where he studied as a young monk. It’s very clear that although he’s physically limited, and in a wheelchair, he is still living his life, doing what his body and health allows.
Anytime he’s healthy enough, he shows up for sangha gatherings and community gatherings. Even though he doesn’t have to do anything. For him, there is no such thing as retirement.
But you are also in this process of letting him go, right?
Of course, letting go is one of our main practices. It goes along with recognizing the impermanent nature of things, of the world, and of our loved ones.
This transition period is his last and deepest teaching to our community. He is showing us how to make the transition gracefully, even after the stroke and being limited physically. He still enjoys his day every chance he gets.
My practice is not to wait for the moment when he takes his last breath. Each day I practice to let him go, by letting him be with me, within me, and with each of my conscious breaths. He is alive in my breath, in my awareness.
Breathing in, I breathe with my teacher within me; breathing out, I see him smiling with me. When we make a step with gentleness, we let him walk with us, and we allow him to continue within our steps. Letting go is also the practice of letting in, letting your teacher be alive in you, and to see that he is more than just a physical body now in Vietnam.
What have you learned about dying from your teacher?
There is dying in the sense of letting this body go, letting go of feelings, emotions, these things we call our identity, and practicing to let those go.
The trouble is, we don’t let ourselves die day by day. Instead, we carry ideas about each other and ourselves. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it’s detrimental to our growth. We brand ourselves and imprison ourselves to an idea.
Letting go is a practice not only when you reach 90. It’s one of the highest practices. This can move you toward equanimity, a state of freedom, a form of peace. Waking up each day as a rebirth, now that is a practice.
In the historical dimension, we practice to accept that we will get to a point where the body will be limited and we will be sick. There is birth, old age, sickness, and death. How will we deal with it?
What are some of the most important teachings from Buddhism about dying?
We are aware that one day we are all going to deteriorate and die — our neurons, our arms, our flesh and bones. But if our practice and our awareness is strong enough, we can see beyond the dying body and pay attention also to the spiritual body. We continue through the spirit of our speech, our thinking, and our actions. These three aspects of body, speech, and mind continues.
In Buddhism, we call this the nature of no birth and no death. It is the other dimension of the ultimate. It’s not something idealized, or clean. The body has to do what it does, and the mind as well.
But in the ultimate dimension, there is continuation. We can cultivate this awareness of this nature of no birth and no death, this way of living in the ultimate dimension; then slowly our fear of death will lessen.
This awareness also helps us be more mindful in our daily life, to cherish every moment and everyone in our life.
One of the most powerful teachings that he shared with us before he got sick was about not building a stupa [shrine for his remains] for him and putting his ashes in an urn for us to pray to. He strongly commanded us not to do this. I will paraphrase his message:
“Please do not build a stupa for me. Please do not put my ashes in a vase, lock me inside, and limit who I am. I know this will be difficult for some of you. If you must build a stupa though, please make sure that you put a sign on it that says, ‘I am not in here.’ In addition, you can also put another sign that says, ‘I am not out there either,’ and a third sign that says, ‘If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.’”
Even for an unwavering nonbeliever like myself, a couple of days last week were very close to a religious experience as we watched my wife’s mother, Ruth Aylward Pommer, 87, pass from this life into what she so fervently believed would be glory in the next.
Observing the initially distressful but finally serene end of a purposeful life robustly lived was both moving and humbling, a replaying of nature’s endless symphony of life and death far beyond any human capacity to halt or reverse it. Reality in perpetually unstoppable motion.
I come from a small family, but Ruth’s extended clan is relatively vast, so it was a beautiful and compelling thing to see the legions of daughters and sons, grand-kids and great-grandkids and great-greats, other relatives and friends filter into the room to hold vigil, voice rosary prayers, tell stories, and say their final good-byes.
It was particularly magnificent to see Ruth’s children closely arrayed around her bed, eyes red with anguished concern, stroking her hair, dabbing her brow, whispering soft encouragements into her ears, carefully watching her for signs of pain or distress so they could immediately do what was required to ease it. This is love expressed in its deepest, most primal, most authentic form.
Although I have spent long hours reading and writing about the unsubstantiality of supernatural ideas, as Ruth slipped quietly away I still realized once again what I already knew — that spiritual yearning is as universally human as rage against injustice. And it is powerful. So powerful.
When the kindly young priest from Ruth’s small farming community delivered the words of last rites in respectful, gentle tones, and anointed her forehead and palms with holy oil, it felt ancient, almost primordial. It felt natural to embrace any ritual, any hope that would make this not a sad end but a beginning of something profoundly better.
For many people, few things in life are as terrifying as its end, and the attendant possibility of immortal nothingness, or, worse, endless suffering. This is why most Christians, including, as Ruth was, Catholics, focus their lives on not displeasing God and improving their chances of being heartily welcomed by St. Peter in Paradise one blessed day.
I get it, especially after this past week, after seeing fervent faith up close in ways I rarely do, at a time of great angst and sadness over the passing of a woman much loved and honored in her lifetime. Even I mourn the end of her life in a personal way. Aside from the courtesy, respect and kindness she always showed me, the big-city alien grafted onto a small farming town by way of a happenstance meeting with her daughter in a far-away land, she also gave me another treasured gift: acceptance. From the beginning, she went out of her way to make me feel part of the large family she headed.
So, there I was at the end of her life, a most secular fellow in the midst of a most religious tribe, and I must say, it was terribly moving.
The funeral service in a breathtakingly lovely community church was fittingly transcendent, with its respectfully hushed tones, the great-grandchildren singing “Amazing Grace” in the choir loft, the candles and incense, readings from Ecclesiastes (“To every thing there is a season …”), the well-said sermon that honored and treasured Ruth’s long life. People came from far and wide to attend, some driving for days to reach the church.
And there was comfort food in church halls after the wake and funeral service and then the burial gathering the following day an hour away, where she was to be laid to rest with her husband. Food is part of the ritual of human passing, where pleasure and pain, good memories and sad immediacies, converge for sustenance of those who have been left behind.
As I went through this process, though from a further emotional remove certainly than Ruth’s immediate family, I still appreciated the essential value of such loving rituals and heavenly yearnings in helping survivors move on and face their next existential challenge. I tried to not focus on the reality that these painful passages also can bring out the worst in us.
So, although nonbelievers can often be antagonistic toward faith, I am reminded that it is pointlessly unkind and destructive to ever denigrate something so visceral and nurturing to people’s lives, whatever one’s philosophical differences.
I was thinking last week, as I waited patiently with others for the inevitable, that at such times theology and religious doctrine seem irrelevant, even as they precisely structure the final proceedings of a life lived out. What matters is love, remembrance and, as necessary, forgiveness.
If someone you love has died in a hospital, you may have seen modern death at its worst: overly medicalized, impersonal, and filled with unnecessary suffering. The experience can be a bitter lesson in Buddha’s most basic teaching: the more we try to avoid suffering (including death), the worse we often make it.
Even though roughly half of Americans die in hospitals and other institutions, most of us yearn to die at home, and perhaps to experience our leavetaking as a sacred rite of passage rather than a technological flail. You don’t have to be a saint, or be wealthy, or have a Rolodex of influential names to die well. But you do need to prepare. It helps to be a member of at least one “tribe,” to have someone who cares deeply about you, and to have doctors who tell you necessary truths so that you can decide when to stop aggressive treatment and opt for hospice care. Then those who care for you can arrange the basics: privacy, cleanliness, and quiet, the removal of beeping technologies, and adequate pain control. They can listen and express their love, and provide the hands-on bedside care hospice doesn’t cover.
From then on, a more realistic hope for our caregivers, and for ourselves when we are dying, may not be an idealized “good death” by a well-behaved patient, but a “good enough death,” where we keep the dying as comfortable and pain-free as possible, and leave room for the beautiful and the transcendent—which may or may not occur.
Hospice professionals often warn against high expectations. Things will probably not go as planned, and there comes a point when radical acceptance is far more important than goal-oriented activity. They don’t like the idea, inherent in some notions of the “good death,” of expecting the dying to put on a final ritual performance for the living, one marked by beautiful last words, final reconciliations, philosophical acceptance of the coming of death, lack of fear, and a peaceful letting go.
“I don’t tell families at the outset that their experience can be life-affirming, and leave them with positive feelings and memories,” said hospice nurse Jerry Soucy. “I say instead that we’re going to do all we can to make the best of a difficult situation, because that’s what we confront. The positive feelings sometimes happen in the moment, but are more likely to be of comfort in the days and months after a death.” This is what it took, and how it looked, for the family of John Masterson.
John was an artist and sign painter, the ninth of ten children born to a devout Catholic couple in Davenport, Iowa. His mother died when he was 8, and he and two of his sisters spent nearly a year in an orphanage. He moved to Seattle in his twenties, earned a black belt in karate, started a sign-painting business, and converted to Nichiren Shoshu, the branch of Buddhism whose primary practice is chanting. He never left his house without intoning three times in Japanese Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (“I Honor the Impeccable Teachings of the Lotus Sutra”).
He was 57 and living alone, without health insurance, when he developed multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. He didn’t have much money: he was the kind of person who would spend hours teaching a fellow artist how to apply gold leaf, while falling behind on his paid work. But thanks to his large extended family, his karate practice, and his fierce dedication to his religion, he was part of several tribes. He was devoted to his three children—each the result of a serious relationship with a different woman—and they loved him equally fiercely. His youngest sister, Anne, a nurse who had followed him to Seattle, said he had “an uncanny ability to piss people off but make them love him loyally forever.”
When he first started feeling exhausted and looking gaunt, John tried to cure himself with herbs and chanting. By the time Anne got him to a doctor, he had a tumor the size of a half grapefruit protruding from his breastbone. Myeloma is sometimes called a “smoldering” cancer, because it can lie dormant for years. By the time John’s was diagnosed, his was in flames.
Huge plasma cells were piling up in his bone marrow, while other rogue blood cells dissolved bone and dumped calcium into his bloodstream, damaging his kidneys and brain function. He grew too weak and confused to work or drive. Bills piled up and his house fell into foreclosure. Anne, who worked the evening shift at a local hospital, moved him into her house and drove him to various government offices to apply for food stamps, Social Security Disability, and Medicaid. She would frequently get up early to stand in line outside social services offices with his paperwork in a portable plastic file box.
Medicaid paid for the drug thalidomide, which cleared the calcium from John’s bloodstream and helped his brain and kidneys recover. A blood cancer specialist at the University of Washington Medical Center told him that a bone marrow transplant might buy him time, perhaps even years. But myeloma eventually returns; the transplant doesn’t cure it. The treatment would temporarily destroy his immune system, could kill him, and would require weeks of recovery in sterile isolation. John decided against it, and was equally adamant that he’d never go on dialysis.
After six months on thalidomide, John recovered enough to move into a government-subsidized studio apartment near Pike Place Market. He loved being on his own again and wandered the market making videos of street musicians, which he’d post on Facebook. But Anne now had to drive across town to shop, cook, and clean for him.
The health plateau lasted more than a year. But by the fall of 2010, John could no longer bear one of thalidomide’s most difficult side effects, agonizing neuropathic foot pain. When he stopped taking the drug, he knew that calcium would once again build up in his bloodstream, and that he was turning toward his death.
An older sister and brother flew out from Iowa to help Anne care for him. One sibling would spend the night, and another, or John’s oldest daughter, Keely, a law student, would spend the day.
Christmas came and went. His sister Irene returned to Iowa and was replaced by another Iowa sister, Dottie, a devout Catholic. In early January, John developed a urinary tract infection and became severely constipated and unable to pee. Anne took him to the University of Washington Medical Center for what turned out to be the last time. His kidneys were failing and his bones so eaten away by disease that when he sneezed, he broke several ribs. Before he left the hospital, John met with a hematologist, a blood specialist, who asked Anne to step briefly out of the room.
Anne does not know exactly what was said. But most UW doctors are well trained in difficult conversations, thanks to a morally responsible institutional culture on end-of-life issues. Doctors at UW do not simply present patients with retail options, like items on a menu, and expect them to blindly pick. Its doctors believe they have an obligation to use their clinical experience to act in their patients’ best interests, and they are not afraid of making frank recommendations against futile and painful end-of-life treatments. When the meeting was over, the doctor told Anne that her brother “wanted to let nature take its course.” He would enroll in hospice. Anne drove him home.
John knew he was dying. He told Anne that he wanted to “feel everything” about the process, even the pain. He took what she called “this Buddhist perspective that if he suffered he would wipe out his bad karma. I said, ‘Nah, that’s just bullshit. You’ve done nothing wrong. The idea that we’re sinners or have to suffer is ludicrous.’” She looked her brother in the eye. She knew she was going to be dispensing his medications when he no longer could, and she wasn’t going to let him suffer. She told him, ‘You’re not going to have a choice.’”
Anne said she “set an intention”: not to resist her brother’s dying, but to give him the most gentle death possible and to just let things unfold. On January 15, her birthday, she and John and a gaggle of other family members walked down to Pike Place Market to get a coffee and celebrate. John was barely able to walk: Anne kept close to him so that she could grab him if he fell. It was the last time he left the house.
The next morning, a Sunday, while Anne was sitting with John at his worktable, he looked out the window and asked her, “Do you think I’ll die today?” Anne said, “Well, Sundays are good days to die, but no, I don’t think it’s today.” It was the last fully coherent conversation she had with him.
He spent most of his last nine days in bed, as his kidneys failed and he grew increasingly confused. He didn’t seem afraid, but he was sometimes grumpy. He had increasing difficulty finding words and craved celery, which he called “the green thing.” He would ask Anne to take him to the bathroom, and then forget what he was supposed to do there. His daughter Keely took a leave of absence from law school, and Anne did the same from her job at the hospital. Fellow artists, fellow chanters, former students to whom he’d taught karate, nephews, nieces, and sign-painting clients visited, and Anne would prop him up on pillows to greet them.
Anne managed things, but with a light hand. She didn’t vet visitors, and they came at all hours. If she needed to change his sheets or turn him, she would ask whoever was there to help her, and show them how. That way, she knew that other people were capable of caring for him when she wasn’t there. “The ones that have the hardest time [with death] wring their hands and think they don’t know what to do,” she said. “But we do know what to do. Just think: If it were my body, what would I want? One of the worst things, when we’re grieving, is the sense that I didn’t do enough,” she said. “But if you get in and help, you won’t have that sense of helplessness.”
Each day John ate and spoke less and slept more, until he lost consciousness and stopped speaking entirely. To keep him from developing bedsores, Anne would turn him from one side to the other every two hours, change his diaper if necessary, and clean him, with the help of whoever was in the room. He’d groan when she moved him, so about a half an hour beforehand, she’d crush morphine and Ativan pills, mix them with water as the hospice nurse had showed her, and drip them into John’s mouth.
One morning her distraught brother Steve accused her of “killing” John by giving him too much morphine—a common fear among relatives, who sometimes can’t bear to up the dose as pain gets worse. At that moment, the hospice nurse arrived by chance, and calmly and gently explained to Steve, “Your brother is dying, and this is what dying looks like.”
The death was communal. People flowed in and out, night and day, talking of what they loved about John and things that annoyed them, bringing food, flowers, candles, and photographs until John’s worktable looked like a crowded altar. Buddhists lit incense and chanted. Someone set up a phone tree, someone else made arrangements with a funeral home, and one of the Buddhists planned the memorial service.
Most of the organizing, however, fell to Anne. It may take a village to die well, but it also takes one strong person willing to take ownership—the human equivalent of the central pole holding up a circus tent. In the final two weeks, she was in almost superhuman motion. She leaned in, she said, “into an element of the universe that knows more than I know. I was making it up as I went along. People contributed and it became very rich.
“That’s not to say there weren’t times when it was phenomenally stressful. I was dealing with all the logistics, and with my own mixed emotions about my brother. I was flooded with memories of our very complicated relationship, and at the same time I knew my intention was that he be laid to rest in the most gentle way possible.”
Hospice was a quiet support in the background. Over the two years of his illness, John’s care had perfectly integrated the medical and the practical, shifting seamlessly from prolonging his life and improving his functioning— as thalidomide and the doctors at UW had done—to relieving his suffering and attending his dying, as the hospice nurses and those who loved him had done.
There were no demons under the bed or angels above the headboard. Nor were there beeping monitors and high-tech machines. His dying was labor-intensive, as are most home deaths, and it was not without conflict.
A few days before he died, two siblings beseeched Anne to call a priest to give John last rites in the Catholic church. “It was a point of love for my siblings. They were concerned that John was going to burn in hell,” Anne said. “But John hated priests.” In tears, Anne called the Seattle church that handled such requests, and the priest, after a brief conversation, asked her to put her sister Dottie on the phone. Yes, Dottie acknowledged, John was a Buddhist. No, he hadn’t requested the sacraments. Yes, his children were adamantly opposed. No, the priest told her, under the circumstances he couldn’t come. It wasn’t John’s wish.
Ten days after the family’s last walk through Pike Place Market, the hospice nurse examined John early one morning and said, “He won’t be here tomorrow.” She was seeing incontrovertible physical signs: John’s lips and fingertips were blue and mottled. He hadn’t opened his eyes in days. His breathing was labored and irregular, but still oddly rhythmic, and he looked peaceful. The hospice nurse left. Anne, helped by John’s daughter Keely and his sister Dottie, washed and turned John and gave him his meds. Then they sat by his side. Anne had her hand on his lap.
“It was January in Seattle,” Anne said. “The sun was coming through the window and we could hear the market below beginning to wake up. We were just the three of us, talking and sharing our stories about him and the things we loved and didn’t love, the things that had pissed us off but now we laughed about. I can’t ever, in words, express the sweetness of that moment.
“He just had this one-room apartment with a little half-wall before the kitchen. I walked over to put water on to make coffee, and Keely said, ‘His breathing’s changed.’”Anne stopped, ran over, sat on the bed, and lifted her brother to a sitting position. He was light. She held him close, and during his last three breaths she chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, as her brother had always done, three times, whenever he left his house. “I was really almost mouth-to-mouth chanting, and he died in my arms,” she said. “We just held him, and then my sister Dottie said her prayers over him.”
Anne sat next to her brother and said, “John, I did well.”
“I know he would not have been able to orchestrate it any better than how it unfolded,” she said.
“It was a profound experience for me. I realized what a good death could be.”
Under current law, people who have made every life decision based on their personal values and faith suddenly become, due to a terminal illness, a victim of someone else’s theology.
By Harlan Limpert
My Uncle Don died in his mid-60s after a two-year struggle with cancer. He was one of my favorites, an adult with whom I could discuss topics I couldn’t even mention to my parents. As a kid I’d often ride my bike to his home in Richfield with assurance of getting some cookies, Rice Krispies bars or a similarly unhealthful snack.
So when in college I learned he had lung cancer, I was heartbroken. Like so many cancer patients, he “fought the good fight” — chemo, surgery, radiation. Despite all the treatments, the disease was winning.
One day, after returning from one of countless doctor appointments, he walked into his bedroom, pulled out a gun and shot himself. My aunt, hearing the shot from the kitchen, lived another 20 years with that horrendous memory.
My uncle accepted some comfort care but would not succumb to the cancer robbing him of his humanity. He wanted to die as he had lived, on his own terms. But at that time, medical aid in dying (MAID) wasn’t legal. I have no doubt that, after realizing the futility of further treatment, Uncle Don would have taken advantage of MAID, which enables a mentally competent adult suffering from a terminal illness to request from their physician medication that will end life peacefully. Medical aid in dying has been legal in Oregon for 20 years since that state’s’ passage of its Death with Dignity law and is now legal in seven more states, including California.
Many of us know of someone suffering from a terminal illness. Most often they are willing to fight like hell for as long as possible but in the end pray for a gentle, painless death.
For decades, Gallup Polls have shown that a majority of Americans support medical aid in dying as an end-of-life option. Twenty state legislatures, including Minnesota’s, have introduced bills similar to Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. But, despite widespread support, lawmakers are reluctant to act. Why? Despite the overwhelming support of people of faith, some religious leaders are fighting it, insisting that Americans die by what they call a “natural death.” Suffering, they argue, is redemptive (“to change for the better”). Even the loved ones surrounding the dying person, it is believed, are changed — redeemed — by the experience.
Other people of faith — me included — see nothing redemptive about needless suffering. In fact, needless suffering is cruel and pointless. The proper religious response to suffering is to alleviate it, to show compassion to the one who is suffering. And there is nothing “natural” about being connected to numerous tubes injecting futile drugs into a dying person’s veins when that person would prefer her suffering to end. There is nothing natural about a respirator providing oxygen to a person whose clear intention was to have a good death, one surrounded by loved ones and absent of unnecessary suffering.
National Religious Freedom Day was Jan. 16. For at least 25 years, U.S. presidents have issued annual proclamations acknowledging and celebrating the many faiths that exist within our country. They have reminded us of our cherished legacy of religious liberty. They recall how Thomas Jefferson penned the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786, which inspired the words of the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing the free exercise of religion.
But when it comes to end-of-life care, an individual’s personal religious freedom is limited by current law. People who have made every life decision for decades based on their personal values and faith suddenly become, due to a terminal illness, a victim of someone else’s theology. The arena of life that is most personal and profound often has people with different religious values determine our options. At end of life, one’s personal values and spiritual beliefs ought to take priority over everything else.
Passing legislation to allow medical aid in dying in Minnesota will enable end-of-life options to be decided by an individual’s values and spiritual beliefs and no one else. Those who choose medical aid in dying can do so. Those who do not would not be affected.
As National Religious Freedom Day is celebrated, let us remember to honor religious freedom and show compassion to those wishing to end their suffering.
I remember the first time I touched a dead body. It was at my grandfather’s funeral. You know the scene: attendants in boxy black suits, the cloying scent of flowers, tissue boxes, breath mints, dusty funeral parlor furniture. As the sad murmur of relatives droned all around, I stepped up to the coffin and quickly reached in to touch his embalmed hands, folded nicely on his belly. They felt like cold, soft leather.
That was when death was still an anomaly to me, an outlier. Now it has become familiar, a recurring pattern in recent weeks and months. For the past several years, I’ve served as a pastor in a suburban parish, an evangelical who made his home in a mainline church. I don’t run the show, since I’m a lay pastor, but I’ve been there for most of the funerals. In the past few years we’ve had almost 40 in our parish. Those are a lot of faces I won’t get to see any more on Sunday mornings. Death is no longer a stranger to me; it is a regular part of my life.
This has been one of the more difficult parts of being a pastor, seeing people who faithfully served our Lord over decades take ill and start a steep decline. These deaths don’t have the shock of tragedy, of teenagers hit by cars or babies born without breath. Still, the dull ache of sorrow is there.
It wasn’t always this way for me. I grew up in a thriving megachurch (by Canadian standards, anyways), and I took it for granted that slowly and surely our congregation would continue to expand. And it did, all through my teen years. As I looked out over the congregation on Sunday mornings, I could see a diverse group of people from ages 15 to 60. But children were most often annexed to their age-appropriate ministries, seniors were few and far between, and funerals were not a constant. The bulk of our congregants were in the prime of life.
Later, when I began my pastoral ministry in a congregation that skewed to those over 65, I became frustrated as our church struggled to thrive. Growth no longer just seemed to happen. And though we saw many young families drawn deeper into the life of Christ, we also lost many veteran saints. I learned to care for the very young as our nursery filled up, and I learned to walk with the aging as they lost the strength to sit in our pews.
Though I looked longingly at congregations that seemed to expand effortlessly, I learned to love the slow work of pastoring a struggling congregation. I took in the beauty of a woman in her 80s dancing with toddlers and singing worship songs. And I remember the 70th wedding anniversary of a couple that faithfully attended worship for just as many years. These quiet miracles don’t have the same luster as other “vibrant” ministries I’ve been a part of, but nonetheless, they witness to the patience and love of God. I came to appreciate the church as the body of Christ formed of the whole people of God, from young to old—even those heading to their graves.
Pastoring an Aging Congregation
Death does not fall outside the life of Christ’s Body; it is a threshold through which we all must walk. Recognizing death as part of our common Christian life allows for a more expansive vision of God’s redemption, which begins the day we are conceived and carries us into our dying
I’ve come to appreciate my close experiences with death. When I look at large, booming churches or hip, thriving church plants, I wonder if their pastors experience the regular privilege of burying octogenarians. I’m glad for these growing churches, insofar as people are having encounters with Christ and his Word. I wish so many of the churches in my denomination would thrive like that. Yet I’m learning to appreciate aging congregations like my own in which the whole community of faith mourns with the death of each faithful servant.
I recently read Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at age 35. She was enjoying a vibrant career, academic success, and a wonderful home with her husband and toddler. The news of her cancer seemed to crush all of that. Life had to be put on hold for chemo, rest, and preparation for dying.
She writes in her memoir about churches in which blessings come as the direct result of fierce faith. She writes, “The prosperity gospel is a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart. … The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way.” Bowler writes that she tacitly held to a tamer form of prosperity gospel logic. She expected that, if she followed Jesus, things would go pretty well because God loves her and wants her to have a good life.
I often find myself believing the same thing about my church: if we worship Jesus and do his will, he will bless us with new members and increased vitality. Stagnant membership and death in the congregation feel like punishments for lack of faith.
But God throws wrenches in the wheels of our theological systems. We get fired. We get divorced. We get sick. We die.
Our local congregations lose their liveliness. They suffer from conflicts. They struggle to raise funds. They shrink
Christians believe that “death is swallowed up in victory” (Isa. 25:8, 1 Cor. 15:54). Our faith is built upon the fact that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. But our experience of death is not always so straightforward. Our sojourn still leads to our bodies being cremated or placed in a coffin.
Helping People Reckon with Death
In many churches I’ve attended, death was pushed to the margins. It was treated like an interruption to God’s work in the world, not as an instrument by which God draws people more fully into his own life. I’m not saying we should love death—after all, it’s still “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). But part of living as disciples is learning to die well.
Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, writes,
“To die well” is to locate what is good somewhere outside our control—in the God who gives and receives our lives. It is also to allow that alien goodness, the goodness of God’s transcendent superintendence over life and its temporal duration, to inform the very meaning of our vulnerability to illness, suffering, and death.
In other words, by embracing death in our churches, we allow our creator to give meaning to our human weakness.
Stanley Hauerwas notes in God, Medicine, and Suffering that Western culture shifted from preparing Christians to die well in the medieval period to franticly attempting to cure us from death in contemporary society. He writes, “We have no communal sense of a good death, and as a result death threatens us, since it represents our absolute loneliness.” According to Hauerwas, we need to learn once again how to grapple with our mortality.
Stories like Bowler’s, then, make me wonder about the kind of church we ought to be. What might it mean to be a church where people regularly come face to face with death? How can we present the gospel in a way that changes hearts, but also ministers to people whose earthly lives will never return to “normal?”
One way in which pastors can deal with death is by talking about it openly in sermons and in conversation. I remember talking with a friend who has since passed away from cancer. He told me that many of the Christians he encountered didn’t want him to talk about the possibility of death. They wanted him to stay positive, focusing on things he could do to get better. He knew that he wouldn’t, but he felt the pressure to stay positive for the sake of others. When I talked frankly with him about the possibility of death, he seemed to breathe easier. In naming death, he allowed the grace of God to come to him even there.
We talk about illness and aging as “battles”; to die is to lose these battles. But staying alive is a battle we all lose eventually—some quickly, some slowly—so we might as well invite God’s presence into our dying. In the cross we understand our living and our dying. What better place to learn this than the church? Who better to initiate these conversations than pastors? Sure, I want my church to be dynamic, vibrant, growing; I pray to God for this. But I also want to cultivate a church where people can reckon with death, worshiping a savior who won his victory hanging from nails pinned to a wooden cross.
“I feel your pain,” Bill Clinton told an AIDS activist in the 1992 presidential campaign. Well, he probably didn’t. Pain is notoriously subjective and hard to measure. Some patients take the dentist’s drill without an anaesthetic; most of us would rather die.
In the 19th and early 20th Centuries doctors speculated why some groups were more sensitive. Their answers reflected the cultural and racial prejudices of the era. One popular theory was that less civilised groups were both less sensitive to pain and more expressive when they experienced it. Doctors contrasted stalwart, stoic Britons with degenerate, weeping dark-skinned people.
A contrasting theory was that civilisation was making people soft. The father of modern neurology, Silas Weir Mitchell, wrote in 1892 that “in our process of being civilized we have won, I suspect, intensified capacity to suffer. The savage does not feel pain as we do: nor as we examine the descending scale of life do animals seem to have the acuteness of pain-sense at which we have arrived.”
Today the opioid epidemic makes the study of differential rates of pain more urgent than it ever was. Current research seems to indicate that Americans in lower socio-economic groups experience more pain.
“If you’re looking at all pain – mild, moderate and severe combined – you do see a difference across socioeconomic groups. And other studies have shown that,” says University at Buffalo medical sociologist Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk. “But if you look at the most severe pain, which happens to be the pain most associated with disability and death, then the socioeconomically disadvantaged are much, much more likely to experience it.”
It’s also relevant in the debate over assisted suicide. Remember Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman whose assisted suicide in Oregon sent a powerful message to Californians to legalise assisted suicide? Shortly before dying, she said, “I don’t want to die. But I am dying. Death with dignity is the phrase I’m comfortable using. I am choosing to go in a way that is with less suffering and less pain.” Pain, or even the prospect of pain, is often regarded as sufficient reason to ask a doctor’s help in committing suicide.
From the point of view of a utilitarian, an increasingly popular philosophy, any pain might be enough to justify suicide. Indeed, the pessimistic South African philosopher David Benatar argues that “a life filled with good and containing only the most minute amounts of bad – a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick – is worse than no life at all” (Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, 2008).
Coming at pain from a different perspective, linguistics expert David Johnson, of Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, has opened up another line of research. In an article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion he charted the frequency of the words “pain” and “hurt” since the year 1800 in four linguistic databases: Google Books Corpus, Corpus of Contemporary American English, Corpus of Historical American English, and Time Magazine Corpus. What he found was a sharp increase in “pain language” in American English since the 1960s. And over the same period words like “religion” and “God” and related concepts like “mortification”, “patience”, “dread”, and “sin” declined steeply.
Why? It is impossible to propose a definitive answer based on word usage, but Johnson’s investigation points at some intriguing lines of inquiry. His theory is that “this growth parallels the era when language related to the divine was in sharp decline”. In other words, a much greater willingness to talk about pain is correlated to a decrease in religious motivation for enduring pain.
… increasing American secularism plays a significant role. After all, the dilemma of the co- existence of pain and a good God is an eternal problem. To suffer in silence is lauded as the appropriate Christian response to pain. And there is a long Christian tradition of promoting suffering in silence …
But with the increasing secularization in 20th and 21st century American society, notions of Christian stoic piety evaporated; thus, people discuss their pain more. And why not? If suffering in silence is not meritorious nor does it assist in religious redemption, then, like [the Greek mythological figure] Philoctetes, sufferers should complain all they want. If for no other reason, it might make them feel better. Interestingly, the data presented above does show an increase in pain, particularly since the 1960s in American English, which coincides with the same era when language related to the divine was in sharp decline.
This is hardly a watertight proof that secularism is responsible for our increasing sensitivity to suffering, but it sems like a plausible explanation. The central symbol of Christianity is the Cross, two crossed beams of wood with a man who claimed to be God nailed to them. It is, in other words, a religion which purports to explain the mystery of suffering by asking us to contemplate the example of God himself. Secularism’s answer to inescapable pain is “stuff happens” or “life’s a bitch and then you die”.
The ancient wisdom of mankind –Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu — is that we can bear any suffering if we find meaning in it. But without meaning, all we can do is talk about it. Endlessly. As Johnson points out, if “proscriptions against complaining or even discussing pain are removed, the modern American sees little reason to withhold discussion of pain.”