Ars moriendi, the art of dying

June 11, 2012

“That’s the way I want to go,” people often say when they hear that someone has died suddenly. “Fast, no suffering, still able to do what I like to do. It’s not death that I fear. Dying is what scares me.”

Most people in America, however, have to go through dying before they die. It’s a slow decline that includes diminishment of their vital powers. Because of extreme medical processes, dying takes longer than it used to and is accompanied by increased wretchedness and loneliness.

At the same time, the church seems to have abandoned its traditional role of helping people experience “a good dying.”

Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church’s Voice in the Face of Death is an awkward effort to help the church recover its voice and reclaim its spiritual role in guiding people through the ending-of-life experience. The authors want the church to help people in ars moriendi, the art of dying.

The writing of this book was prompted by ten examples of dying that were not artful in the classic Christian sense. The initial case was the dying of a Presbyterian minister whose sister and father are two of the authors of the book. (The third author had been one of her seminary professors.)

Speaking of her sister’s death, Joy V. Goldsmith says, “From my view (as caregiver), her dying in the church, while working full-time, then part-time, but never not working, was a debacle. A devastation. A secret. An unspeakable thing” (xiii).

The authors became aware of other pastors who also died while continuing their ministries. The majority of the ten examples the authors studied were marking by ambiguous communication,congregational denial, and suppression.  The congregations experienced negative, long-term consequences from these episodes.

How could this have happened? And why? The authors declare that the primary reason is that the church has outsourced all aspects of caring for people as they move through terminal illness.

They speak of “glorious medicine” as one of the villains. It is a trust in medical miracles that postpone death and encourage people to dissemble with one another, especially with the one who is dying. The result, however, is often the increase of suffering, loneliness, and the fear of alienation from God.

They also write about the “faithification of the fight,” meaning that people are encouraged to use every weapon at hand to fight as though death could be forestalled forever. As a result, dying is evaluated by the heroic measures taken to keep it from happening rather than by the peace, love, and joy experienced by dying persons and those who mean the most to them.

The constructive aspects of Speaking of Dying are the chapters in which the authors recount the church’s story. Its plot line is that God’s love surrounds and sustains us through every aspect of life including the final episode of dying. Because that forgiving, renewing love is expressed in Jesus, especially in his own death and subsequent resurrection, we can face death confident that God loves us and will be with us through death and beyond death in life with God.

In our baptism, we have been united with Jesus in a death like his and in the eucharist we receive the continuing renewal of love, faith, and hope. Because these sacramental experiences remove the sting of death, we can pass through our time of dying with grace.

The authors provide useful suggestions for the churches as they reclaim their proper role in helping people die. As is the case with most preachers, I have rarely dealt with this subject in sermons. On a recent occasion when I was a one-Sunday guest preacher, I did speak of how to live in the face of terminal illness. Comments afterwards lead me to conclude that the authors are correct when they encourage preachers to speak more fully about this important topic.

It is surprising that the authors give little attention to the institutional challenges that are related to their case studies. Congregations and denominations ought to have processes for handling situations in which pastors are unable to perform their duties, but the authors do not discuss these matters. Portions of the book, especially the earlier chapters, are marked by a defensive tone that beclouds the positive character of the book’s primary message.

The authors distinguish between dying, which is their focus, and death, which is another part of life that the church should address. The artfulness of how one dies, however, may in large part be influenced by what one believes about death itself.

Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith, and Joy V. Goldsmith have written from the heart, and their book, despite its shortcomings, constructively addresses topics that are important for pastors, congregational leaders, and bishops and conference ministers.

Searching for new rituals for death and dying

March 4, 2012

Until recent times, funeral directors and clergy provided professional services for most people at the time of death. The proper care of “the remains,” was the necessary focus of their work, with the funeral director responsible for the physical aspects of the process and the pastor focused on the rites of transition—for the deceased into the “for ever after” and for the survivors into the next phase of their lives right here and now.

The work of these two sets of community servants came together in the funeral services that were normal practice even for people who had not been participants in religious communities.

During the past quarter of a century, however, attitudes and practices related to death and dying have changed dramatically. One result is that clergy are no longer the necessary provider of mandatory rites at the time of death. Even long-time members of their congregations may turn to other ritual sources when loved ones die.

A recent gathering of the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion, meeting at a conference center on the western slope of Mt. Hood, devoted one of its sessions to this topic. Following the association’s standard practice, one of its members prepared a research paper on the subject of the day and a second member prepared a response. Then came the general discussion by the association members.

Larry Snow, Senior Pastor of the Murray Hills Christian Church in Beaverton, Oregon, presented the paper which he entitled “Grief and Grieving—Rituals and the Church.” Near the conclusion of the paper, he made these comments.

But reasons aside, if the point of rituals is to connect us to a large myth and to move us to a new place, perhaps the need is for the development and institution of new rituals, reflecting different myths, connecting people in new ways, and moving people to new places. In fact, perhaps this lack of ritual isn’t so much a problem as it is an opportunity to give birth to new rituals. Thinking both theologically and pastorally it seems to me that we need rituals:

  • That both honor the life of the deceased as well as restate the Christian hope in eternal life.
  • That express a belief in the sacredness of life, dying, death and grief.
  • That move people together in mutual love and support both for the time
  • immediately following the death and for some time afterwards.
  • That move people in relationship with God who is our source and strength. Read more Grief and Grieving – Larry Snow

The response was prepared by Nancy Gowler Johnson, pastor of First Christian Church of Puyallup, Washington. Her paper was entitled From Here to Somewhere Over There: A Response to Grief and Grieving–Rituals and the Church.” She concludes her paper with this paragraph.

Thomas Long argues compellingly for ministers to regain control over the design and content of the Christian funeral. He names the current trends in funerals/memorials a “‘personalized’ funeral…one that is caught up in all of the current cultural anxieties about selfhood and identity, such that what constitutes a “self” is a set of lifestyle circumstances and consumer choices.” Although he comes down clearly on the side of tradition, Long does encourage the incorporation of local customs into a historic liturgy. I agree with Long’s great love of historic liturgies, but I remain suspicious of the motivations behind clerical protests. I wonder if at least a portion of this critique of modern funeral practices is the religious establishment wanting control in a shifting culture?

Christendom is in its own death throes; is it any wonder that the church no longer plays a central role in funeral rituals? Perhaps we need to pay more attention to what people are choosing to do in these times. If Wuthnow is right, and rituals are not a separate action but are a dimension of all human activity, professional religious folk may need to step back and listen. Are there rituals that we do not recognize or condone simply because they bear little resemblance to traditional rites?

In a ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turns out to be the same world. –Clifford Geertz  Read more From Here to Somewhere Over There – Nancy Johnson 

Both writers include extended bibliographies, which indicate the body of literature that is available for people who are interested in the notable shifts in public ritual in American society. One fact is clear, death and dying are facts of life that are as inevitable now as they have always been. Another fact is just as certain, although we may be less aware of it, is that we will continue to ritualize the process, with clergy and funeral directors, or without.

Larry Snow and Nancy Johnson can help us think about these matters in informed and useful ways.

The Northwest Association for Theological Discussion is a long-standing association of clergy most of whom are related to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Although most of its approximately thirty members serve as ministers of churches in the Pacific Northwest, several members hold academic appointments. 


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