How to be a Good Dead Person – Part 2 of 3

“For Everything a Season”

Rev. David Felten

Words of Wisdom: Ecclesiastes 3.1-4

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For Everything a Season
October 17, 2010

The author Ecclesiastes, otherwise known as “Qoheleth”, aims to find out how to ensure that one benefits in life. However, any possible advantage in life is destroyed by the inevitability of death. As such, Qoheleth concludes that life (and everything) is senseless. In light of this conclusion, Qoheleth advises his audience to make the most of life, to seize the day, for there is no way to secure favorable outcomes in the future. “Utterly senseless, everything is senseless!”

The word translated “senseless,” heh’bel, literally means vapor, breath. Qoheleth uses it metaphorically, and its precise meaning is extensively debated. Older English translations often render it vanity, but in modern usage “vanity” has come to mean “self-pride” and really lost its original meaning of emptiness. Other translations include meaningless, absurd, fleeting or senseless. Some translations use the literal rendering “vapor of vapors” and then leave the interpretation to the reader. Bottom line: everything in life is fleeting – even life. Enjoy it while it lasts.


Jeremy Greaves is a friend of mine on Face Book. He’s the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Darwin, Northern Territories. Yesterday he posted: “just buried “Goldie” the goldfish. “do you want to say any words Hannah?” (his young daughter) “Nah… there’s plenty of other goldfish out there.” … if only all funerals were so straightforward. Amen to that.

Don Messer is a Methodist theologian who edited a book a few years ago entitled “How Shall We Die?” and in it tells the story of his own father’s death:

Without warning, my father was diagnosed with incurable liver cancer. Three weeks later he died. Just as he had taught his family how to live, he spent his final days demonstrating to us how to die. His instructions were clear: No expensive life prolonging but ultimately futile treatments. No heroic actions. Bring the family home from around the country so love, hugs, and kisses could be exchanged. Take care of mother. No intravenous feeding, once the family could no longer care for him at home and he would have to return to the hospital.

Death for dad came swiftly and he departed this life with dignity and grace. A few days later family and friends gathered in our small prairie town church to sing, remember, and encourage one another.

As a chaplain at Good Samaritan and as a pastor for the past 20 years I have been with families as they faced the inevitable death of a loved one. I have been in the Intensive Care Unit as families work through the painful decision to discontinue the use of a respirator because all the tests indicate that there is no hope of recovery and that there is no consciousness in their loved one. I’ve been there when the machines have been turned off. I have visited church members in hospice facilities where they know they are dying and where they have decided that they do not want to go on just existing so they have stopped eating and drinking on their own and they have waited in peace for what the book of Ecclesiastes says is the time to die.

As a pastor, as a chaplain and out of my conversations with church members filling out their own living will and deciding on advanced directives that refuse any extraordinary measures from health care professionals, I remember the story of the death of Terri Schiavo from about five years ago.
It was a complicated and emotional story about the end of life and about family conflicts and misunderstandings and family pain – and it’s not rare. There are perhaps as many as 25,000 people in our country – right now – who are in a “persistent vegetative state.” They have no awareness, no consciousness, no feeling. They seem awake but only have reflexes and exhibit random crying or smiling; but they have no consciousness. “They” are not there.

This definition is part of the emotional response that so many people had to Mrs. Schiavo. In old video pictures, some people say they saw awareness, but her physicians had been saying for several years that that was physically impossible, that there was absolutely no hope of her getting better or recovering or becoming conscious or aware.

Her parents held on to the hope that the reflexive actions they saw were signs of consciousness. We would all want to hope that a daughter or son could get better—even after we have seen them for fifteen years in that condition. It would still be hard to let go of a loved one if we were hoping for some chance of recovery and if we could still go and visit what to others looked like the shell of that person.

But if there’s a silver lining in the media coverage of this tragedy, it’s that it gave many pause to think, that if we ourselves were in the same state as Mrs. Schiavo — no consciousness, existing in persistent vegetative state for fifteen years, no hope of recovery – that we would choose for nature to take its course and for the feeding tube to be removed.

80% of people polled said they would NOT choose to be continued on that kind of artificial life support. Yet less than 30% of us have signed living wills that tell our doctors and our family what we wish for ourselves should we come to that situation.
Sorry for the statistics, but they speak volumes. Of the over 6000 people who die every day in the US, two-thirds will involve some element of decision that the family has to make. Decisions about respirators being turned on or off; about feeding tubes inserted or removed; and all kinds of other difficult issues.

The phrase “life support” raises an entirely different set of questions: what is life? When someone’s mind has been as severely compromised as Terri Schiavo’s had been and they have no consciousness for fifteen years, is that “life” or is that just an existence? How do you define life? We don’t want to become a society where we just dispose of someone who does not appear to have the kind of usefulness we think is important – but neither do we want to mindlessly use all the technology at our disposal to simply fend off the inevitable.

And whether it’s the life-and-death choices people have to make everyday to the extraordinary conditions portrayed in a film like “Million Dollar Baby” where the main character decides she does not want to live in her current condition and decides to end her life, where does our faith make a difference in these questions? How can we think ethically and responsibly as Christians about the end of life? Let me make a few observations:

— The Bible is more comfortable with death and with the inevitable end of life than many of us are. Our book says, life is fleeting, life is temporary, and life is very fragile. We are here only for a while. The psalmist says that from the point of view of God, people are like flowers that are here for a while and then are gone. Or people are like grass that is here for a while and then is gone. Each one of us has a beginning and an end and though we live in times when medical science has been able to prolong that time and postpone that end through technology, there will still be an end for each of us in this life. As author Leo Buscaglia says, “no one gets out of this world alive.” And then Woody Allen chimes in, “It’s not that I’m afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

There’s a Muslim legend about a servant of wealthy merchant who goes to the marketplace in Baghdad to acquire provisions. There, he has the most frightening experience of his life. He rushes home to his master’s house, all the color drained from his face, and he says, “Master, I was in the market and there I saw Death and when Death saw me, he raised his hand to strike me. Oh master, I know he wants to take me. Please, please give me your fastest horse so that I can flee.” And his master says, “Well, where will you go?” And he says, “I will go all the way to Samaria. Death will never find me in Samaria.” And so the master gives him his fastest steed and the servant takes off for Samaria to hide. Well, later that afternoon the merchant went into the market and he too saw Death and so he went up and he enquired of Death, “Why did you raise your hand to strike my servant, earlier today?” To which, Death replied, “Oh, I meant him no harm at that moment. In fact, I raised my hand as gesture of surprise because I did not expect to find him here because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samaria.” You and I cannot outrun death. There is a time to be born and a time to die.

The other thing the Bible says is that each life is very important, each life is precious, and each life will be received back into the God who is the source of life. In the words of the apostle Paul, we may stand at the graves of our loved ones and weep, but we do not have to weep in despair because we trust God to love us and care for us in death as well as in life. Our historic faith claims that God is bigger than death and that death does not have the final word. And whether you hold to that belief or are more comfortable simply saying, “I don’t know,” our challenge is to decide – and it’s a decision – to embrace death with dignity.

So what would it mean in your life and in your family to embrace death with dignity? Here are some suggestions:

Do you have a medical power of attorney? Have you thought through what your wishes are for the end of life? You need a living will, you need an advance directives —
An advance directive is your life (and death) on your terms. Whether you’re 18 or 80, documenting your wishes today means your family won’t have to make heart-wrenching decisions later.

We all need to talk with family, friends, our doctor, your pastor. Know the options. Decide what’s right for you. And then put it in writing. Carry an advanced directive card in your wallet. Let people know where your paperwork is.

Terri Schiavo’s case was a relatively easy one. Her cortex, that part that made her Terri, had been destroyed 15 years prior. Despite the belief of her tortured parents, all that remained were unconscious reflexes. What brought her story to our attention wasn’t medical disagreement; it was family conflict. Mix that with political opportunism by politicians and manipulation by those with a particular religious agenda, and the tragedy was made epic.

What made the whole thing difficult in the extreme was not knowing definitively what Terri herself truly wanted. She had left no written directive. It took Michael Schiavo five years to finally lose hope that Terri would recover. Every one of us, if facing that reality, would want to do everything we possible could to save the one we love. Who wants to make the decision — the unalterable decision — that will inevitably take the life of a spouse, a parent, or child? Yet many of us have had to make that decision, and many of us here will face it at some point. If we don’t want to live like that, then how do we want to live, and have we told that or clearly written that to our loved ones, so that they know our wishes?

Friends of mine had a knock on their door at 2am one morning this week. It was the Phoenix Police Department telling them that their 40-something daughter had been found dead in her hotel room while traveling on a business trip. Their daughter was single and left no will and no directions – so on top of the shock of dealing with their daughter’s death, her parents also have to make all the arrangements from contacting a funeral home, to finding all her paperwork in her home on the East Coast, dealing with insurance companies, bank accounts, mortgage information, automobile loan, and what to do with her dog.

Usually, it’s the other way around – it’s left to the kids to figure all this stuff out for the parents. But either way, what does it say about us when we’re so afraid of the inevitable (or so sure that we’re never going to die) that we leave all these matters for someone else to figure out?

I preached a sermon similar to this at my first church – and included a check list of paperwork to have all in one place, a list of accomplishments and information you’d like in your obituary, AND a form to fill out about your funeral – what songs you’d like, what scripture or poetry you’d like, where you’d like donations to go.

One woman got up and stormed out. Later she sent a letter withdrawing her membership saying, “I don’t come to church to be told that I’m going to die!” Well, honey, you’re not going to be reminded many other places – until it’s too late.

I have sat with too many children, planning a funeral, who say, “I don’t have a clue what he or she would have wanted.” I’ve been to the funerals of too many friends where, clearly, the people planning the service didn’t know a single thing about the deceased’s wishes, beliefs, or preferences – which made the funeral all the more painful because along with the grief of loss came the frustration that the person’s memorial service didn’t reflect anything about who they really were.

So, I’m here to tell you, it is not just basic personal responsibility, but a sign of spiritual maturity to sit down and figure out all these details NOW. To do so gives us pause, with Ecclesiastes, to think about how finite life is, what’s ultimately important to us, and how we want to be remembered – AND it’s a final gift to our loved ones, who won’t have to worry about figuring out what we want or don’t want.

Stream of Thought: Do it now.

In the Gnostic gospel, The Sayings of Jesus, Jesus tells Mary Magdelene: “Death is not the enemy. Live life in joy and welcome death in peace. Then will you be one with me.”

Live life in joy! And may that joy be informed, in part, by the realization that, in spite of all our medical advances, the death rate is still 100%. The Bible tells us how important it is for each of us to acknowledge that and come to terms with it and, I think, make some plans for leading up to it and for what we’d like in its aftermath. There is a time to be born and a time to die – and in the meantime, may our joy in life be grounded in the maturity of planning to be a good dead person.

Original material © 2010 David M. Felten

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