Friday, August 27, 2021

"Politics, Religion...Death"

They say there are two subjects you should avoid in polite company; politics and religion. There is a third subject that is so off the table in our society that it isn’t even mentioned in the impolite category. It has a category all its own called “never.” That subject is “Death.” (If you are polite company you may wish to cease reading.)

Unfortunately, the one place where you should be able to talk about death, your faith community, is often the place where the subject is avoided in favor of “everlasting life.” But that is putting the cart before the horse.

Fortunately, there is a new development in the person of “end of life doulas,” or let’s be clear here, “death” doulas. Just as there are birth doulas to see us through the beginnings of new life, there are those who will help us and our families through the last days of life. Their role may be helping with
wills, negotiating to allow a cat in a hospice room with a dying patient, sitting through the night holding a hand, making funeral arrangements, or even making sure a last bedside reading or song is a favorite of the dying person.

The International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) is located in New Jersey and offers training and certification. The designation is new and unregulated at present. But the service is clearly growing and expanding across the country.

Clergy have served the dying and their families for ages. Large churches will often have staff specifically designated for such situations. In my own ministry, I’ve served many of the functions mentioned, except negotiating a cat in a hospice room. But doulas are meant to be a more comprehensive response to the needs of the dying and their families, without constraints. They are present for the duration and whatever the needs of the dying might be.

The title of the most recent issue of Christian Century was “Green Burial: as an act of faith.” In earlier times the deceased body of a loved one was washed and wrapped at home. The hole was dug in the field and the body placed by family and friends. The Lenten words of “dust to dust” were made real. There was no chemical embalming of the body. There was no concrete barrier between body and earth. If a box was the carrier instead of a shroud it was wooden, likely made by a family member.

The first contemporary and specifically green burial site arose in Great Britain in 1993. One of the hopes was to make the area more friendly to wildlife, and offering the planting of an oak tree over the burial plot. By 2013 there were 268 natural burial sites across the country. The first one came to the U.S. in 1996 in Westminster, South Carolina. Today there are more than 160 sites around our country. There are certainly many more, scattered across the woods and plains from an earlier age, now long forgotten and overgrown.

We all must admit that it is only by the grace of God we are alive from one moment to the next. To acknowledge death as a part of our life and plan for it, is at least as important as planning for retirement, though seldom recognized that way. We might consider the question of, what is a “good death?”

One friend who received a terminal diagnosis called me on the phone. He asked me to forgive him for any harm he may have caused me in the past, and assured me he forgave me for anything that might stand between us. He said he loved me. He made these calls to several individuals he knew he would not see in person again. His wife assured me, he died peacefully.

On another occasion, I was the hand-holder. It was as if the dying was at the edge of an abyss and was gripping tightly to the only thing keeping him from falling over the edge. I felt like my hand was in a vise and I couldn’t remove it. Although unconscious, I couldn’t believe the deceased had a peaceful ending.

Whatever our belief might be about what happens to the spirit when one dies, we can know for certain what happens to our spirit and our body while alive. Perhaps living a life of gratitude and service, in harmony with creation and each other, will prepare us for death in the best possible way.

Living well is our best insurance for dying well. 

Carl Kline

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