“What Endures?”

On All Saints Day, November 4, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, delivered this sermon, “”What Endures?” (The bulletin for the service is online.)

At the start of the service, In observance of All Saints Day, the names of the 39 church members who had died since the prior All Saints Day, which were printed in the bulletin, were read aloud.[1]

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession. Associate Pastor David Shinn led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Eternal God, in every age you have raised up your children to live and die in faith. We confess that we are indifferent to your will. You call us to proclaim your name, but we are silent. You call us to do what is just, but we remain idle. You call us to live faithfully, but we are afraid. In your mercy, forgive us. Give us courage to follow in your way, that joined with those from ages past, who have served you with faith, hope and love, we may inherit the kingdom you promised in Jesus Christ.”

This was followed by Silent Prayer and Assurance of God’s Forgiveness.

Listening fro the Word

Scripture: Isaiah 40: 1-8 (NRSV)

“Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Sermon:

“We don’t usually hold memorial services on Sunday morning, but All Saints Day comes close. We gather and remember those who have gone before us, we read their names, we give thanks to God for their lives, and we proclaim that death is no match for the power of God’s love.”

“Given all that has happened in our nation in recent days, it feels as if a memorial service this morning might be appropriate. The murders of 11 Jews as they worshipped in Pittsburgh in their synagogue last week and two African-Americans at a grocery in Louisville, as they shopped – both by white extremists – call us to national grief. “

“When we gather for a memorial service we want to do three things. First, we want to name the sorrow felt by those whose loved one is now gone. Second, we want to tell the story of the person’s life. Third, to declare a word of hope about the love of God that remains strong from everlasting to everlasting: the love that endures even in the face of death.”

“Sometimes a memorial service leans more in one direction or another. When the life of a young person has been cut short, for instance, and there are no memories of a long, full life, giving voice to the anguish of the family is important. I’ve led memorial services for infants and young children, and grief is about all there is, tempered by a touch of gratitude, even for the short life of a child.”

“Ten days ago the world was introduced to little Amal Hussain, the seven year-old whose emaciated body has come to incarnate the awful tragedy of the war in Yemen, where thousands are at risk of starvation. Now Amal – whose name in Arabic means hope – has died. The anguish of her parents runs deep. In an interview her mother said, simply, ‘My heart is broken.’”

“Children so often bear the brunt of the violence of adults. They don’t have a stake in the conflicts fueled by the fear or hatred or ambition of adults. Children don’t take sides in those conflicts. Yet, they’re very much on the receiving end of the fights between adults.”

“Perhaps death like that seems distant and unconnected to us. But we are not innocent when our policies and our weapons are used to inflict violence on the people, the children, of other lands.”

“And closer to home, we are not innocent when we refuse to consider ways to curb the ease with which people can acquire the guns that kill nearly 100 people every day in America.”

“And we are not innocent when we do nothing to stem the growing racism and violence that sometimes lead to death for people of color or differing faith traditions or other nationalities.”

“A rabbi in New York City this past week sent an email to his congregants and I received a copy of it. The rabbi said he views the Central Americans heading toward our southern border to seek asylum as no different from the Jews who sought asylum here in the 1930s when they faced death in an anti-Semitic Germany. We turned them away from our shores then; have we not learned anything in the ensuing years?”

“Every anti-Semitic assault in America is an attack on all of us, and every racist assault is an attack on the values at the heart of our democracy. What makes us to be a good people is shattered by those attacks. All of us are affected by them. We cannot let them go unanswered. We cannot let vitriol carry the day.”

“That’s why so many came together last Sunday afternoon at synagogues across the country, including Temple Israel here in Minneapolis. The 1500 people who gathered there wept together in sorrow for the senseless loss of human life. The service began in silence, and then worked its way through the Hebrew Scriptures: the voice of Job, the lament of the psalmists, the cry of the prophets.”

“It was important for the city’s Jews to gather, and they did, from all three major branches of Judaism. Rabbi Zimmerman noted that the Reform and Orthodox and Conservative movements of American Judaism rarely meet together, but they did last Sunday. They came to lift their collective voices in an outpouring of anguish, and in memory of their common history: it had happened again.”

“It was important that our Jewish neighbors not be alone in their grief. Hundreds of people from other faith communities and people of goodwill came, as did our two U.S. senators, and other elected officials and candidates from both parties. I was grateful to see so many Westminster members there. We came, first of all, to weep with them. It was a memorial service, and it did not paper over the heavy sorrow.”

“But when people of faith gather for a memorial service there is more at work than grief. Healing begins even in the midst of the anguish. We felt and saw that last Sunday at Temple Israel. As we named our sadness and shed our tears and lifted our lament, something else began to emerge.”

“The cathartic moment came when we stood to hear the names read aloud. The 11 Jews killed in Pittsburgh called to us, called to those assembled in that synagogue and in others across the country, summoning us to shared purpose, to renewed commitment to what this country stands for. Their deaths and those of the two Black Americans in Louisville would not be in vain if we could find our way back to the things that bring hope, the things that make us a resilient people, the things that endure. We left that service on Sunday resolved to change our communities and our nation, to work for reconciliation and renewal within the human family. We don’t have to live like this.”

“’The grass withers, the flower fades,’ the prophet Isaiah says, ‘But the word of our God will stand forever.’ (Isaiah 40:8)”

“That word called out to us last Sunday at Temple Israel. It was a defiant word that would not let hope be stifled, would not let us be cut off from the promise of light in the darkness. By the end of the service the entire sanctuary was singing and dancing and holding on to one another. The atmosphere in the room had shifted from despair and defeat to confidence, confidence that there are things that endure, that are stronger than hate, more powerful even than death itself.”

“We saw that same hope two nights ago, many of us. We went back to Temple Israel. It was the first Shabbat service in synagogues across the country since the shooting in Pittsburgh. At Shir Tikvah in south Minneapolis people came from the community and formed a circle of candles around the building as protection to worshippers and to push back the darkness. At the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh the building was closed still, but the faithful and their allies gathered anyway, outside to sing and pray and share the light of God, the light that endures.”

“And at Temple Israel on Friday the Twin Cities Justice Choir, including many from Westminster, sang as worshippers entered the building. We sang of resilience and strength, of courage and working for justice, of resistance against division and hatred. As the congregation that had been gathered there listening to us moved into the sanctuary for Shabbat service, we sang “We Shall Overcome,” and they sang it, as well. With people of faith and good will across the land, we sang of things that endure, of hope, of community, of love.”

“At the conclusion of Shabbat services worshippers always recite the Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer. We did that at Temple on Friday. It’s the custom before reciting Kaddish to read the names of those in the congregation who have died recently, as well as the names of those who died one year ago. This Shabbat they added 11 more names, those who died in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. “

“The Mourner’s Prayer, the Kaddish, recited in memory of the dead, surprisingly, does not mention death. It speaks, rather, of things that endure. It’s a prayer dedicated to the praise of God, and it concludes with this line: ‘May God who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us and for all Israel.’”

“And with that last line, the worshippers at Temple Israel lifted their hearts in song and rhythmic clapping and warm embraces as they headed out into the night.”

“’’The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.’”

“Our faith as Christians is built upon the claim that God’s love, as we know it in Jesus Christ, endures. The church bears that affirmation in its very life – not only here, but as we go out into the world to be church wherever we find ourselves. God’s love endures.”

“So, at every memorial service, we name the promise again: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

“On All Saints Sunday as we read the names of those who have died, we say it again: weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes with the morning.”

“And as our nation passes through this time of turmoil and distress we say it again: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelled in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined..”

“The things that endure, the things that endure, draw us to this table today, to this memorial table, where we eat the bread and drink the cup. In doing so we remember Jesus, hung by injustice and malice on a tree, and left there to die.”

“But we do not linger long in despair at the table. Instead, as we do at every memorial service, we rejoice in the life that conquers death. In the life that overcomes all that would stand in the way of God’s grace and mercy and love.”

“We may have come grimly to worship today, through the rain and the grayness of the world, struggling through the anxious shadows of our time, but we can go forth in joy, because God is Lord – and if God is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing? “

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

The Isaiah passage emphasizes two contrasting realities.

First,, “all people are grass, their constancy is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades.” Yes, every one of us is mortal. Each one of us will die.[2]

Second, the other reality is “the word of our God will stand forever.” Or, what endures? Our God’s love endures.

Therefore, in times of immense grief, like that over the senseless murders of worshippers at the Pittsburgh synagogue, we are summoned to “shared purpose,” to “renewed commitment to what this country stands for” and to “reconciliation.”

It also should be noted that Cantus, a well-known men’s vocal ensemble with offices and rehearsal space at Westminster, provided beautiful music at this service: “”Salvation Is Created” by Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944), one of the foremost Russian composers of sacred choral music; “You {Movement 5)” by Libby Larsen, a widely performed composer and a Minneapolis resident; and “A Quiet Moment” by Jennifer Higdon, a prominent, contemporary U.S. composer.

=========================================

[1]  One of the names that was read was a friend, Cheri Register, who was a Westminster elder and church archivist and historian as well as an expert in Swedish language and literature, a co-founder of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, teacher of creative writing and a noted nonfiction author.

[2]  See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Intimations of Mortality (Mar. 8, 2012); Mortality (April 8, 2014); Contemplations of Life and Death (Dec. 26, 2016).

Contemplations of Life and Death  

My contemplations of mortality and those of Roger Cohen have been subjects of previous posts.[1] Additional contemplations are prompted by an article by two philosophy professors, John Kaag and Clancy Martin.[2]

Their starting point is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, “Ozymandias,” in which an anonymous traveler discovers a bust and pedestal, half-buried in windswept sands, with the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

This poem, they say, delivers a perennial message: “All of this will be over soon, faster than you think. Fame has a shadow — inevitable decline.” Our existential fragility “is overlooked in most of our waking hours” and “must be faced even by the greatest among us.”

We, however, “tend to defer the question of living or dying well until it’s too late to answer. This might be the scariest thing about death: coming to die only to discover, in Thoreau’s words, that we haven’t lived.” We “pretend that dying is something that is going to happen in some distant future, at some other point in time, to some other person. But not to us. At least not right now. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not even next decade. A lifetime from now.”

“As surely as time passes, [however,] we human beings are dying for something. The trick to dying for something is picking the right something, day after week after precious year. And this is incredibly hard and decidedly not inevitable.” But “we have a remarkable degree of choice about what to do, think and become in the meantime, about how we go about living, which means we have a remarkable degree of choice over how we go about our dying. The choice, like the end itself, is ultimately ours and ours alone.”

If we succeed in liberating ourselves from the delusion of immortality, “we may find that confronting the fact of our own impermanence can do something unexpected and remarkable — transform the very nature of how we live.”

All of this makes sense to me, but this article does not provide guidance on how one should decide what to do “day after week after precious year.” For me, this triggers the Christian notion of vocation and the words of Frederick Buechner, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said “the word ‘vocation’ . . . means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[3]

==================================

[1] Previous posts: Intimations of Mortality (Mar. 8, 2012); Mortality (Apr. 8, 2014); Death Certificates’ Documentation of Mortality (Apr. 11, 2014); Why I Do Not Hope To Die at 75 (Sept. 25, 2014); Further Reflections on Ezekiel Emmanuel’s Desire to Die at 75 (Sept. 30, 2014); Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Roger Cohen’s Gentle Words of Wisdom (Dec. 3, 2016).

[2] Kaag & Martin, Looking Death in the Face, N.Y. Times (Dec. 26, 2016),

[3] My General Thoughts About Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014); Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings? (Dec. 7, 2016).

Further Reflections on Ezekiel Emmanuel’s Desire To Die at 75

A prior post set forth this blogger’s negative reactions to Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel’s essay “Why I Want to Die at 75” in the October 2014 issue of The Atlantic Magazine. Another post referenced others’ reactions.

Now the December issue of that magazine contains extensive readers’ reactions. Here are some of those comments, all to my surprise by women, along with Dr. Emmanuel’s response.

 Readers Responses

Arlene Pollack of Yarmouth Port, Mass. Said, “We octogenarians . . . have grown more understanding of our fellow elderly, more grateful for the love and companionship of our mates, more intent on remaining deeply involved in the lives of each and every family member, and more determined to set an example for our children and grandchildren of how to age in such a way that we don’t leave our loved ones with a dread of incapacity, a horror of diminished vitality. I understand that we cannot anticipate what will befall us, that we may not be able to fulfill this goal, but having this positive philosophy brings a certain peace of mind.”

Felicia Nimue Ackerman, Professor of Philosophy, Brown University, Providence, RI, who thought Dr. Emmanuel’s reasons for his desire to die were elitist, stated, “If Dr. Emanuel hopes to die at 75 because he thinks this would benefit his children, that is his prerogative, although other people might doubt that children selfish enough to welcome this parental sacrifice deserve it. Moreover, Dr. Emanuel’s suggestion that it would be good for ‘each of us to ask whether our consumption is worth our contribution’ will hardly attract those who think that even the unproductive have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Caroline M. Simon of Louobressac, France offered these comments: “If . . . Dr. Emanuel is saying that there is no sense in leading a life in which one is not able to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, gain great applause at professional meetings, direct the behavior of one’s family members and friends, and implant memories in loved ones of an energetic, risk-taking guy so that children and grandchildren, students and friends can hope to emulate one’s nonempathetic ways, then I couldn’t disagree more. . . . Who is to define what is a life worth living? Certainly not the middle-aged Dr. Emanuel. He can see little pleasure in helping future generations mature, in continuous learning, in days spent enjoying the company of others when we are not at the head of the table. He ignores the blessings of performing everyday tasks and attending routine events and basking in the joy of memories. He gives little value to happiness gained from kindness, generosity, shared wisdom, unselfish love, a walk with a cane in a beautiful garden, and a lifelong search to discover who we are and what our role is in the continuum of life in our community and on Earth.”

Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post columnist, said “there is no sin in slowing down. There is satisfaction in completing the crossword. You don’t always have to bike past the roses on your way up the mountain. In high gear.”

Margaret Connolly of Niles, Illinois said, “It seems sadly obvious that Dr. Emanuel’s desire to leave his children and grandchildren with memories of his vitality is the genuine dream of the American immortal. To actually believe that one can shape the memories of our progeny with a possibly truncated life is sheer hubris. It’s an unattainable aspiration.”

 Dr. Emmanuel’s Reply

Dr. Emmanuel’s characterized this group of comments as “the troubled” and said they “tend to describe his article as ‘thought-provoking.’ They are challenged by it. They object to my view of a meaningful life. As Caroline M. Simon says, ‘Who is to define what is a life worth living?’”

This was his reply to this group, “Who else but each of us individually for ourselves? My goal was to challenge these people to not live the habitual life, to not avoid the ‘big questions’ about the ultimate worth of our lives. We carefully construct our lives, filling them to overwhelming with activities in order to assiduously avoid such spiritual and existential questions, I think at our peril.”

Conclusion

 I do not see how Dr. Emmanuel legitimately can call this group “troubled” or as calling his article “thought-provoking.” Instead, they object to his view of a meaningful life as I did in my posts.

I also believe his response to this group is totally inadequate. He apparently does not acknowledge the criticism that his view of a meaningful life is twisted and needs to be re-evaluated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Perspective on Dying

Dr. Atul Gawande
Dr. Atul Gawande

 

Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon, Harvard professor and author, has offered another perspective on dying in a New York Times article. Its title, “The Best Possible Day,” hints at what is to come. [1]

He first expresses his frustration as a physician with dying patients he cannot fix and as a son whose father in his 70’s was having mounting difficulties. As a result, he conducted research by interviewing over 200 people about their experience with aging or serious illness.

The most fundamental discoveries of this research were two. “First, . . . we have failed to recognize that people have priorities that they need us to serve besides just living longer. Second, the best way to learn these priorities is to ask about them.”

For a physician like himself, he concluded that the most important questions to ask the patient to discover their priorities are these:

  1. “What is their understanding of their health or condition?”
  2. “What are their goals if their health worsens?”
  3. “What are their fears?”
  4. “What are the trade-offs they are willing to make and not willing to make?”

Gawande then offers the example of one of his patients, a woman in her early 60’s who had battled a rare pelvic cancer, but two years later developed a leukemia-like malignancy caused by her prior cancer treatment that was incurable by established means.

After having a conversation with Gawande about her goals and fears and priorities, she determined that her most important priorities were returning to her home from the hospital and resuming her beloved piano teaching. Making these two things happen “took planning and great expertise.” But it happened for the last six weeks of her life.

Her husband later said, “She was more alive running up to a [piano] lesson and for the days after.” She still had “some things she wanted . . . [her students] to know before she went. It was important to her to be able to say her goodbyes to her dear friends, to give her parting advice to her students.” At her last recital with the children, she had “taken each student away from the crowd to give a personal gift and say a few words.” She gave a book of music to Gawande’s daughter and whispered, “You’re special.” The dying woman made that day “the best possible day” for herself and for her students.

Gawande also reports that physicians need to know and remember that “[p]eople want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, connect with loved ones, and to make some last contributions to the world. These moments are among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind.”

atul-beingmortal-cover3d1-319x479

Thank you, Dr. Gawande, for this important reminder to us all. I look forward to reading your new book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, which sounds like a continuation and elaboration of your New York Times article.

================================================

[1] Gawande’s essay is more profound than Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel’s essay about wanting to die at age 75, which has provoked a lot of reactions.

 

Why I Do Not Hope To Die at 75

Under the provocative title, “Why I Hope To Die at 75,” the 57-year-old Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and head of the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, sets forth in The Atlantic Magazine what he claims to be his firm conclusion that he hopes to die in 18 years at age 75.

As a 75 year-old-man who was graduated from high school in 1957, the year Emanuel was born, I do not hope to die in the remaining months before I turn 76 or at any other set time.

Let us explore the reasons for these different conclusions.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s Reasons

According to Dr. Emmanuel, “[L]iving too long is . . . a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.” He then backs up this opinion with what he asserts as facts:

  • “We [in the U.S.] are growing old [in terms of increased life expectancy], and our older years are not of high quality.” Studies show, he says, that “increases in longevity seem to have been accompanied by increases in disability.” Another study found an “increase in the absolute number of years lost to disability [including mental disabilities like depression and dementia] as life expectancy rises.”[1]
  • Another medical researcher said, “health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process.”
  • “[O]ur mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older: mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, problem-solving and creativity.”
  • The “most dreadful of all possibilities: living with dementia and other acquired mental disabilities” while our society is expected to experience a “tsunami of dementia.”
  • As we age, we “accommodate our physical and mental limitations. Our expectations shrink. . . . [W]e choose ever more restricted activities and projects, to ensure we can fulfill them.”

He recognizes that “there is more to life than youthful passions focused on career and creating. There is [mentoring and] posterity: children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

But these benefits of aging are outweighed for him by “the very real and oppressive financial and caregiving burdens” often imposed on other family members and by the psychological burdens on children unable to escape from the shadows of living parents.

Although Emanuel does not embrace euthanasia or suicide for himself, he has executed “a do-not-resuscitate order and a complete advance directive indicating no ventilators, dialysis, surgery, antibiotics, or any other medication. . . . In short, no life-sustaining interventions.” In addition, if and when he reaches age 75, he will seek to avoid any visit to a doctor and any regular preventive tests, screenings, or interventions. He says he “will accept only palliative—not curative—treatments if he is suffering pain or other disability.”

A desire to die at age 75, he says, “forces us to think about the end of our lives and engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children and grandchildren, our community, our fellow Americans, our world.”

He concludes with this caveat. “I retain the right to change my mind and offer a vigorous defense of living as long as possible. That, after all, would mean still being creative after 75.”

Responses to Emmanuel’s Reasons

I agree with Emmanuel that as we age we lose some of our physical and mental abilities and that executing a complete advance medical directive forbidding extreme life-sustaining interventions, as he and I have done, is a reasonable thing to do.

Otherwise I vigorously disagree with Emmanuel’s conclusion that a desire to die at age 75 is a reasonable conclusion and reject his argument that what others think of us or how they may remember us after we are gone is relevant to this issue. Apparently creativity is a central virtue for him, and its predictable decline as we age appear to be the major motivation for his stated desire to die at 75. Yes, creativity is important for many of us, but it is not the only virtue.

I also wonder why he does not contemplate retirement from actively working for a living as another stage of life with certain benefits. Nor does he really grapple with the facts, he briefly concedes, that many older people are happy with new interests like “bird watching, bicycle riding, pottery, and the like” and that “there is more to life than youthful passions focused on career and creating. There is posterity: children, grand children and great-grandchildren.” He also glosses over the fact that his own father (Dr. Benjamin M. Emmanuel), now about 87 years old, had a heart attack 10 years ago and since then has slowed down appreciably, but still says he is happy.

My Reasons for Not Wanting To Die at 75

At age 62 with some trepidation, I retired from the active practice of law. I wanted to escape the pressure of being a litigator who oftentimes was forced to be in professional relationships with opposing counsel who were disagreeable people. This produced stress that I wanted to eliminate as life-threatening. I also wanted to create time to do other things beside working while I was still in good health: travel, spend time with my grandchildren, learn new things and write. After my first 10 years of retirement I assessed my retirement and concluded that these years had been productive and enjoyable. That confirmed for me the wisdom of retiring when I did. These conclusions have been reconfirmed by my subsequent three additional years of retirement.

In this period I became actively involved in my church’s global partnerships and made three mission trips to Cuba and one to Cameroon and in the process made new international friends and learned a lot about the two countries. My involvement with Cuba prompted me to become an advocate for changing U.S. policies regarding the island. I could not have done this while still practicing law.

I also have reflected on my own life and affirmatively set about determining the many people and activities for which I was grateful. Yes, this could have been done while still working, but the pressures of working, I believe, would have meant postponing such reflections to another day that would never have come. This process of reflection, aided by worship at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, has also enabled me to see certain of my activities as vocations in the Christian sense.

One of my activities in this first phase of retirement was being a part-time Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School to co-teach international human rights law. In the process I learned a lot about this field of law and enjoyed interacting with law professors and students. I could not have done this while still practicing law.

At the end of 2010 I retired from law teaching in order to create time for sharing things I already had written and for research and writing on new topics that came along. In the spring of 2011 this desire lead to my creating and writing this blog. It is exciting to come across new things, like Emmanuel’s article that prompted this post. I frequently find that such things immediately start my composing an article in my head. Often this triggers a desire to do research, frequently using “Google” searches, but sometimes going to a library or sources of original documents. I enjoy this kind of puzzle and challenge as well as the writing.

In my retirement I also have thought about mortality, especially as friends, acquaintances and others my age die. But such thoughts are not depressing, but rather reminders that I too am mortal. Therefore, try to make the most of each day you have.

I do not worry about when I will die or wish that I will die at a particular age. Nor do I worry about what happens to me after death even though Christianity has a promise of eternal life.

Be happy! Enjoy life! Love one another!

This point was raised in an article entitled “Too Young to Die, Too Old to Worry” by Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine, just after the publication of the Emmanuel essay, but without citation to same. Karlawish said, “Age seems to be a blunt criterion to decide when to stop” and “we desire not simply to pursue life, but happiness, and . . . medicine is important, but it’s not the only means to this happiness.”

Here are some of my blog posts that relate to the previous statement of reasons why I do not desire to die at 75.

Post # Date Title
19 04/22/11 Retiring from Lawyering
21 04/23/11 My First Ten Years of Retirement
226 03/15/12 Gratitude I
242 04/11/12 Gratitude II
243 04/13/12 Gratitude III
276 06/13/12 Gratitude Revisited
221 03/08/12 Intimations of Mortality
489 04/08/14 Mortality
492 04/11/14 Death Certificates’ Documentation of Mortality
466 02/06/14 My General Thoughts on Vocation
475 02/23/14 My Vocations

[1] Emmanuel makes no reference to the immediately preceding article in the magazine by Greg Easterbrook, What Happens When We All Live to 100?, The Atlantic at 61 (Oct. 2014) that discusses research into further increases in vibrant life span.

Death Certificates’ Documentation of Mortality

The April 7th issue of the New Yorker has a fascinating article by Kathryn Schulz[1] on death certificates, a subject you never thought you would want to know about.

She says, “every dead body is a mystery. Death is an assassin with infinite aliases, and the question of what kills us is tremendously complex. . . . Today, ‘Why do we die?’ is one of the fundamental questions of epidemiology, and we have developed a vast and macabre bureaucracy to answer it.”

Only one half of the 50 million people who will die this year, she reports, will get a death certificate. The half who do not are in the world’s poorest places that do not have the infrastructure for such documentation.

The antecedent of the modern death certificate was the Bill of Mortality in early-sixteenth century England that recorded the weekly numbers of death by the plague.

In 1836 they were replaced in England by what would become the global prototype of the modern death certificate.

In 1893 the International List of Causes of Death was published by a committee headed by the French statistician and demographer Jacques Bertillon. That list after 10 revisions is still used today and now is managed by the World Health Organization. The latest version has over 8,000 ways to die.

Today the one-page death certificate has 250 pages of instructions on how to fill it out by physicians, funeral directors, medical examiners and coroners. Although 90% of the certificate can be filled out easily, the problem arises with the four lines for cause-of-death.

The certificates for deaths in hospitals typically are filled out by residents who have inadequate training for doing so. This results in errors that “overstate leading causes of death, obscure emerging ones, and distort the data we use to allocate funds for research, education, prevention and treatment.”

The author concludes that a death certificate “provides the pathological basis of death, determined by some combination of fact, convention, and guesswork, and described in terms that most non-doctors struggle to understand.” She adds, “The bureaucratization of death . . . has evolved over time into a massively complex checkpoint at the border between the living and the dead; Charon’s[2] T.S.A. [Transportation Security Agency].”

I now add the history of the death certificate to my prior post’s reflection on mortality.

———————————————————

[1] Schulz is a journalist, author and book critic for New York Magazine. Her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error was described as a “funny and philosophical meditation on why error is mostly a humane, courageous and extremely desirable human trait.” She has spoken at TED on “Don’t regret regret” and “On being wrong.”

[2] In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styk and Acheron that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead.

 

Mortality

Mortality was this year’s final Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] This post will discuss the Scriptures and sermon for the theme and conclude with personal reflections.

The Scriptures

The Old Testament text was the familiar Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 (New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added):

  • “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  • a time to be born, and a time to die;
    a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    a time to kill, and a time to heal;
    a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
    a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
    a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    a time to seek, and a time to lose;
    a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
    a time to tear, and a time to sew;
    a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    a time to love, and a time to hate;
    a time for war, and a time for peace.”

The New Testament text was from Chapter 15 of Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 15: 15-20, 35-38, 42-44, 50-55 (New Revised Standard Version:

  • “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
  • But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
  • So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
  • What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”

 The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s sermon reminded us, “We began our walk down the pathways of Lent weeks ago on Ash Wednesday. We marked ourselves with a smudge of mortality and stepped into the season. Now, as we near the cross and the crucifixion, the way inevitably brings us back to where we began. Death is never too distant.”

Yet, a “veil impenetrable by earth-bound vision shrouds . . . [death]. The event itself can be so covered over by the machinery of modern medicine and the whispered denial of our culture that sometimes it takes the power of a poem to carry us down to what the old Celtic folk called ‘the river hard to see.’”

[The poet of Ecclesiastes said it simply and powerfully: ‘For everything there is a season, And a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die….’]

“If we can acknowledge that death happens, that it will come to our loved ones, that it will come to each one of us, then we can see it not as mistake or failure or defeat, but, rather, as part of the rhythm into which we were born, the end of life as we know it.”

“Part of our job as people of faith is to demystify death, to help our world deal with it, to help others not be overwhelmed by it. In so doing, we help ourselves.”

“That sums up the proper approach of people of faith to death. We do not deny it. We do not look the other way. We recognize the pain it brings to those left behind. We name the sorrow of our grief. But we do not give it power over us. We are not afraid of the dark.”

“Our culture, on the other hand, is afraid of the darkness of death.”

“We are not afraid of the dark. We may not fully understand death, but we will not let it have the last word.”

“From Paul’s point of view we give up the physical body at death when, ‘in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed’ into what Paul calls a spiritual body that dwells with God in the life to come.”

“That may be all we can say about death. It may be enough: as a seed must die and fall to the ground in order to find new life, our lives must end in order to inherit what Paul calls the ‘mystery’ of eternity.”

Reflections

Ecclesiastes makes death explicit: there is a “time to die.” The rest of the passage also tells us that during our earthly lives there is “a time” for many other experiences, including mourning, and that each of these other experiences will not last. That is both a challenge and a comfort. It challenges us to embrace every moment of the pleasurable ones and comforts us during mourning and other unpleasant experiences.

The passages from First Corinthians help with the “mystery” of the promise of eternal life. The perishable physical body ends with death. At death we will be changed into imperishable spiritual bodies. For me, I do not need to worry about what happens after death.

In a prior post, I described my intimations of mortality from attending memorial services for former law partners and friends, from writing obituaries for deceased Grinnell College classmates and from preparing personal financial statements.

Those reminders of my own mortality continue along with others.

My wife and I have taken steps in recognition of our advancing years, the risks of deteriorating health and the certainty of death. Last year we downsized and moved into a one-level condo that provides many shopping, dining and entertainment options within walking distance. We also have consulted with an attorney to update our wills, trust documents, and health care directives. We have decided for cremation of our remains, instead of embalming. We have shared information about these documents, decisions and our financial situation with our two sons. We want to minimize the trauma they will experience when we die.

I reflect on visiting my parents in 1967 and receiving a desperate telephone call from my father, age 67, to come rescue him at his business. I did so and managed to carry him to a car and drive him to the hospital where on arrival he was pronounced dead of a heart attack. I still lament that the prior day he and I had an argument that was still unresolved when he died.

In 1992 I was with my mother, age 86, as she was dying of congestive heart failure at her nursing home. I was astounded that the moment of death was not instantaneously apparent. A few seconds had passed when I realized she was no longer breathing. It was a blessing to be with her in those final moments.

Recently I visited a college classmate in hospice care. Her eyes were closed, and she was non-communicative. But I said goodbye and conveyed the prayers and concerns of our classmates before she died the next day. There is a ministry of presence.

As is common with many people as they age, I regularly read the obituaries in our local newspaper (StarTribune) to see if anyone I know has died and take note of news of the deaths of famous people. They are constant reminders that fame, wealth and power do not make anyone immune from death.

As I read these obituaries, I notice that some of the deceased are older than I, and I quickly calculate how many more years I have if I live as long as they did. Surprise, that arithmetic exercise keeps producing smaller remainders! For example, if I live to age 85, which now sounds like a very old age, I only have about 10 more years. Yet I know several people in their 90’s who are mentally alert and active.

I have been doing genealogical and historical research and most of the individuals about whom I research and write have DOB (date of birth) and DOD (date of death) data. At some point a DOD statistic will be added to my name.

This research and writing have brought some of my ancestors, who lived long before I was born, closer to me.

This sentiment recently was expressed much more beautifully by Roger Cohen in a New York Times column entitled “From Death Into Life” about the amazing life of his Uncle Bert Cohen, who died last month at the age of 95. The columnist said he has “found my life consumed by his” and “[n]ow he lives in me. The living are the custodians of the souls of the dead, those stealthy migrants. Love bequeaths this responsibility.”

Roger Cohen finishes the column with a story about his uncle’s serving in Italy as a South African soldier in World War II. While his uncle was in Florence, a small bird settled on his shoulder for five days. This “caused Florentines to prostrate themselves, name Bert ‘Captain Uccellino’ (or ‘Little Bird’) and proclaim him a saint. He was far from that but he had about him something magical.”

Roger Cohen then concludes his column with these words: “Of that [his uncle’s magical quality] the days since his death have left no doubt. He is now that bird on my shoulder, reminding me to take care with my spelling and be aware that love alone redeems human affairs.”

I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, including the potential capacity to be a parent with children.  The only way this will work is to limit the physical lives of the human beings. Otherwise, the planet would be overrun with people. Yes, there is “a time to die.”

——————————————

[1] Prior posts have discussed this year’s other Lenten themes of mindfulness, humility, mercy and repentance.