As we emerged from the last few months of 2020, my congregation felt a pressing need to start the new year thinking about death and dying. It sounds sort of awful, doesn’t it? That we would emerge from a year so full of grief and pain and decide “hey, you know what we need? MORE of this kind of reflection!” I expect that most of us were just trying to limp toward January first, praying for something better, using every possible distraction to avoid the pain and grief of the last months.
But not my tiny, intense congregation. Nope, they walked together through the death of beloved parents and siblings and friends, watched the world miss funerals in order to keep everyone else alive, felt around the edges of their own grief and pain and said: “we need to talk about this.”
Have I mentioned, lately, how much I love my congregation?
They asked me for resources on advance directives and living wills. They watched loved ones make impossible decisions as the people they loved died, and wanted to know how to avoid putting their own partners and children in the same situation. Death has been hovering around us, all year, and my people wanted to confront it.
So, we planned a winter series called “The Art of Dying.” Our resident hospice chaplain helped shape the sessions. A long-time family friend from Roanoke who spent her life founding & starting one of the Valley’s first hospice efforts joined in a Zoom call and walked us through documentation, important things to talk about with loved ones, and wisdom won from decades of being face to face with death.
A full-time hospice chaplain in our congregation led an intense and lament-filled hour talking about what life has been like for folks working and living in nursing homes this last year, especially those places that have been sites of COVID outbreaks. The way he expressed the grief of so many of us being forced to die alone hit us deep down in our bones.
And then, last week, a PhD student in our congregation led us in a conversation as part of her research around VSED: Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking, which is an end-of-life possibility for those who are facing terminal diagnoses without hope of cure or significant easing of suffering. How did we react to this possibility, she asked us. Why did we think what we did? What would we do if a beloved member of our congregation asked us to accompany them in this kind of journey?
In the midst of this series, one of our congregation’s strong leaders, one of the folks who had been most insistent about confronting death and making her own plans, someone who had spent 2020 doing a lot of her own grieving, someone who I loved very deeply and who I know loved me, too…died.
She wasn’t sick for long, and she did not suffer much. Her death was quick. She didn’t have time to fill out the forms we distributed about advance directives. In the end, she didn’t need them. She didn’t get her funeral wishes on paper, but she did start talking to her husband and to us. We knew, because she told us, that she was not afraid of dying. We knew, because she told us, that she understood death as an indescribably beautiful reunion with the God who had saved her again and again over the course of her life.
We miss her.
Yesterday, on the first day of Lent, I drove up the driveway of the Methodist church down the road, rolled down my window and closed my eyes as my Lutheran friend imposed ashes on my forehead. “Dana, remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” she said.
Christians have this strange ritual of imposing ashes on our foreheads and being reminded of our mortality in part because we are so prone to forgetting about it. We do not like being faced with the truth that we are created and contingent creatures whose lives here on earth had a distinct beginning and will endure a distinct ending. It’s the age-old psychological ballyhoo: humans aren’t great at contemplating the finiteness of our existence.
My own Christian tradition doesn’t really do ashes on foreheads – we’re too low-church and plain-spoken for such theater – but I love it. It is a physical experience of being marked with death, reminded of death, told by another living, breathing, beloved human that both of us are going to die – someday – and that this, too, will be holy. And I love that. I need it.
Being reminded of our created, contingent, finite existence doesn’t have to come as an imposition of ash on a forehead. It could happen in an Art of Dying series with your congregation, or at a funeral when we’re invited to listen to sacred scripture that reminds us of these very elemental truths about who we are.
What is important, I think, is that we open our ears and our hearts to the truth, and practice getting comfortable with it: every one of us is going to die. Death is not necessarily an affront or an illogical tragedy, though certainly death does sometimes steal people from us who ought not have been taken in the time or in the way they were.
Death is a holy part of being human. God created us as finite beings, beloved creatures whose lives are contingent on forces mostly beyond our control. Remembering that we are dust and to dust we will return is a pathway to humility and conviction. Here we are, together, for just a sliver of time. How will we choose to live while we’ve got the chance?
This passage from Romans 14 has been in the back of my mind all winter, as my congregation dove head first into wrestling with death and dying and have been confronted with death’s holy power even as we did so:
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
May it be so. Amen.