Talking about death and dying

Talking openly about death is a rare thing. We don’t like talking about it. We prefer it go away and stay away, like rain: “Rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day.”

When someone dies, it’s often said they’ve passed, passed away, or passed on, a sentiment dating back to a Greek idea of the immortality of the soul. It was/is assumed the soul at death is set free from its mortal cage to live forevermore.

The likes of Barbara Brown Taylor, of whom I consider myself one, have different idea. “Matter matters,” she says. Flesh and blood matter. Flesh, blood, and matter matter. Christians, following the older view of the Hebrew Bible, do not share the belief in a part of us – a soul – that survives our mortal frame. Instead, we profess a curious hope that affirms the essential goodness of corporal existence. Belief or hope in the resurrection of the body may seem even stranger than the immortality of the soul.

I have no more reason to believe in the resurrection of the body than I do to believe in an immortal soul. Watching the life go out of my dogs, I did not imagine some invulnerable part of them leaving their bodies to pass on to some other state of being. They were dead. I cried. I grieved. I mourned their loss. I never thought I would see them again. If they, or we, had a future, it seems more natural, so to speak, to think of them in their bodies all over again.

But which body would it be? Would Maggie, our West Highland White Terrier-Bichon Frise, be the playful pup or the one with the tumor on her hip? Would I be the 73 year-old me, the new-born me, or the teenager with the raging hormones?

Passing away has always made more sense to me than passing or passing on. “You are dust and to dust you shall return” makes better sense to me. The Earth will go on, as will those I love … for a time … but not forever, so far as any of us really knows. I say the Nicene creed on Sundays and ponder what it means to say “I look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” The world to come, so far as I can tell, is the Earth where Cecil the lion doesn’t get killed by a dentist, and the lion and the lamb…and the dentist…lie down together in peace and hurt one other no more.

My friend Steve talks openly about death and dying. “I’m dying,” he says, not with a morose or maudlin sensibility but as a fact. It’s not a great surprise to him. Would he and we prefer the rain to go way and come back some later day? You bet. But it won’t, and even it if would, it would be back some other day. There’s great grace in the acceptance of death and the maturity to speak of it aloud, enjoy old friends when one can, laugh and cry and hug and kiss those one loves.

That we would want something more or fear death as the end is part of being human. The time of death is not time to debate philosophy or theology. It’s time for compassion, and for grace and courage to recognize our creatureliness – the distinction between every creature and the Creator, mortal life and the Immortality, the finite and the Eternal.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 29, 2015

The Corpse

the face and hands are grey
even under the pink
lights by the big casket

no life is in the lips
the eyes are not asleep
the hands will never move

he hid himself from us
as the cancer got worse
he had said goodbye

his voice i still can hear
his raspy laugh echoes
in my memory

I did not need to see
the artificial body

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, April 11, 2014

Ever feel invisible?

Sometimes I feel invisible.  People walk by me on the street or in the mall…and it’s like I’m not there.  People walk by like ghosts talking to ghosts.  They don’t see me.  They’re somewhere else, not really there.  They walk like people.  They talk like people.  They look like people.  But their eyes are somewhere else…in some far off place. Their heads down, reading or writing a text or staring into space, babbling to someone who’s not there.  They don’t see me. I’m invisible.

I have the same experience driving to and from work.  Drivers cut in front of me or run up behind me. They laugh and smile and wildly gesture, but there’s no one else in the car! When their driving puts me in jeopardy, and I honk, they keep talking.  They don’t look and they don’t hear anything but the voice on the other end of the cell phone. Even my Toyota’s invisible; it’s become a non-material world.

It’s nothing new really.  Western spirituality has always been dualistic. It says that we have a body and we have a soul – the physical and the spiritual.  We just have these bodies for a while.  We don’t really die; we just get rid of these bodies and fly away like birds set free from their cages.  It’s an old Greek philosophy that made its way into the writings of St. Paul.  The world of “the flesh” is evil; the world of the spirit is good.

The rudeness on the highways and in the malls, in the coffee shops and even in our homes is but the latest expression of this deprecation of bodily existence.

The voice on the other end of the phone is more important than the person in front of me, and the ones I cannot see or hear or receive a text from are unreal…in Iraq, Afghanistan, and anywhere else I decide to hang up and nuke their worlds into the permanent invisibility of nonexistence or the fires of hell.

I sit quietly at the airport gate, waiting for my flight. Used to be people would at least acknowledge one another’s existence – the bare fact that you were really there and not somewhere else or nowhere – but now they’re on cell phones, babbling away as though the room were empty except for them. Because, I suppose, we’re ancient Greeks with head sets, cell phones, and iPods, seduced by the old idea that we are meant for non-embodied existence. It’s just me and my invisible world, and you with yours, a rude collection of loud mouths and headsets, mouths and ears disembodied from eyes that see, noses that smell, hands that touch and minds that actually think in the silence between our noises.

Touch is a basic need. My dog knows it.  I know it.  Hearing and speaking are important. But the most important communication comes by touch. An animal that goes untouched becomes wild and crazy.  So do we.

To touch and be touched is a vulnerable thing. We crave it. But to touch and be touched is a vulnerable thing. It reminds us of our embodied selves, our mortal selves, our dependent and interdependent selves. The non-material world is safer. Unlike the body, the worlds in our head are invulnerable. In the world of disembodied spirits

The oldest Christian creed says “I believe in the resurrection of the body” because those who developed the creed saw the body – the physical world,  the material world, the world of the five senses as not only “good” but essential to existence itself. There is no human life without a body. The body is not a thing to be shed. It’s a gift that places us squarely in time and space.

Next Sunday is Pentecost, the day the babbling stopped, the day the Spirit transformed their separate worlds. Tore down the barriers of language, class, race, gender, and nationality with the sound of a mighty wind so profound that they all stopping babbling and listened to the Voice that spoke in and through the strangers around them.

It may be hard to comprehend exactly what happened on the Day of Pentecost – tongues of fire descending and resting on each one – but it’s not so hard to make the translation for us in the era of instant communication lonely crowd.

Do you feel the wind and the tongues of fire calling us back into the celebration of embodied existence?  Isn’t it time to see each other again? Talk with people who occupy the same space?  Time we grow up and stop talking to imaginary friends or hanging up on real people who don’t do what we don’t want them to do? Time we recover the spiritual joy of physical community: the recovery of sight, smell and touch.  Time we pay attention to common courtesy. Time to notice that the person on the other end of my cell phone and I are not the only ones in the universe: a Pentecost in disembodied world of the 21st Century.

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