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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Good Death

The article below is revised and republished from another blog I ran in the past. 

Where to begin regarding death?   It isn’t just a matter of first impressions.  It’s also a matter of what road I travel down.  The poet Frost settled that question.  Yes, one can always begin again.  I’ve done that more than once in my life.  But eventually one begins to run out of beginnings.  When that happens it becomes more profitable to begin at the end.

So perhaps, in the interest of time, dear reader, even though I think (perhaps erroneously, as God may decide) that I still have a few beginnings left, I will begin at the end for your benefit.

The presence of that end is still only theoretical, but it looms larger as time passes.  You see, I have arrived at the place where I leave the door unlatched at night.  Not the door to the outside, but rather the door to the inside.

I live, you see, in a room in a rooming house, with one door to the outside, and one door into the rooming house.  I’ve reached that age where someone living, single, in a boarding house has to contemplate the idea of being found more than one day dead.  Probably not any time soon, and not the greatest concern in my life, but a real thought none the less.  I doubt I would rest dead for long , as I have a great deal of the only true wealth in life—friends.  And many of my family live in this metropolitan area.  Never the less I have developed the habit of making my discovery easier, giving that the other denizens of this  rooming house may not be as motivated to discover me as my friends, and my friends may not think of my absence for two or three days. Maybe it’s a final vanity.

Then again I should not underestimate my friends.  I was too ill one day to go to a Sunday mass and a friend who missed me came to knock on my door.  That is a comfort.  But never the less I make it easy to be found as a reminder to myself of the fragility of human life.

In Catholic tradition we are to contemplate the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.  The contemplation of these four last things is a preparation and reminder in life, of what is truly important, as we do not normally posses in life the beatific vision (the vision of God).  It is the habit that prepares us for what we can the “Good Death.”

Bishops in the middle ages traditionally kept a skull on their desk, a a reminder of death, so that they, in their teaching office, would remind others of the four last things.  Others, myself included, wear a scapular, given by the Virgin Mary to a saint with a promise of eternal life to all who wear it faithfully.  I believe its function is like that skull—to remind us of what is truly important.

The preparation for death is a life’s work.  Trivial measures like my unlocked door are only the smallest part. It would be much preferable, by tradition, to die surrounded by friends and family, in your bed, talking with them to the end.  To have your friends alerted by concerned rooming house residents is a signed that death has come like a thief in the night. 

But then again death does come often like a thief in the night.  And even if it has come in that manner we hope for an otherwise good death.  For the most essential part of a good death is to die at peace with good, and at peace with any who welcome your peace.  To restate this in Catholic terms, a good death is  most of all to die in a state of Grace.  To die aware of your sins and having sincerely asked for forgiveness and taken all possible steps to make amends.  To die blessed by sacraments and prayer. To die in love with God and man.

But in this modern age, death has been cheapened. It has been cheapened by life being cheapened.  We took a rather bad turn for the worse in the mid-twentieth century with the mass genocides of World War Two. (Not only the Nazi holocaust, but fascist blood purges and the Japanese “Rape of Nanking” in China. And the fire bombings of Japan and Dresden by the United States followed by our use of atomic weapons, all on civilian populations. Yes, earlier still we had the poison gasses of World War One and the Armenian massacre, but World War Two was a high water mark in the disregard for human life.

You see it has often been said that life is sacred, but I remind you here that death is sacred.  Death is the summing up of a life.  If we take a human beings death away from them we have rejected the entire dignity of human life.   To do this on a mass scale is the opposite of preparing for a Good Death.  We have rejected repeatedly everything that is good in death and made it evil.  We are then preparing ourselves for an Evil Death.

In contemplation of what has changed about the attitude towards life and death in modernity I watch a good number of films about World War Two and read a good number of films.  Yes, I read a good deal of religious literature, especially the bible.  But I find seeing the attitude towards death in modernity through the door of World War Two shocks me out of any complacence on the subject.  The study of that war is like the door we open to find the dead roommate. 

I read somewhere recently a statement shocking it its ignorance.  A writer claimed that none of us will die without anything.  No one, he claimed, dies naked.  But the Nazi’s perfected the mass looting of everything from those about to die.  I suggest, dear reader, you read Ellie Wiesel’s book, Night.  A survivor of Auschwitz, he reveals to us the absolute inhumanity of the process in the camps.  Those being sent to the “showers” to die from poison gas piled up the last of there possessions.  They were stripped naked. When I think of this my mind goes next to the crucifixion of Our Lord, when the soldiers gambled for his clothes and placed him naked on the cross.  

Indeed, we actually posses nothing at the time of our death, even if we have not been so mistreated.  For nothing we have owned in our life means anything.  I have often contemplated the manner of Nelson Rockefeller’s death.  One of the wealthiest men in the world, dying of a hearth attack in an emergency room, the gurney he was on was shoved aside by mistake (presumably) and he died alone and without emergency treatment.

Now we face another challenge to the dignity of life and death.  We faced in Iraq, and now increasing in parts of Afghanistan, though a sort of mass slaughter terrorism a new phenomena: Genocide by National Suicide.   In Iraq, for a while, it became commonplace to consider a natural death as a blessing from God.  A natural death is no longer expected.  That made the whole country of Iraq akin to a Nazi death camp.  And now we see a national slaughter occurring in response to the Libyan uprising.

In the face of such a death, a death resulting from others trying to remove everything that is good in death, only the most focused contemplation on God can alleviate our terror.  And the induction of such terror is an attempt to prevent us from a death focused on love of God and man.  So in Middle East today, and elsewhere in the world, we are facing the phenomena of man attempting to kill God, to kill him in the human death, in the name of religion.  Putting aside differences we may have on Middle Eastern politics, we can I think agree on the evil of that.

So dear, I come to the painful moment.  The moment of the end, when I must ask you to contemplate your own death, and prepare your thoughts on the subject. God Bless you all.  

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