Learning to live with death and dying

July 11, 2016

In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying, by Eve Joseph (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2014)

Joseph“I was a girl when my brother was killed,” Eve Joseph writes at the close of this multi-textured book. “In the silence that followed his death, grief took up residence in our house. His death led me to the dying, and death led me back to him” (p. 199).

During her adult years, Joseph worked as a hospice counselor, living in close contact with people as life ebbed away, observing with a poet’s sensitivity the physical, emotional, and inter-personal aspects of the experience that comes to all.

Joseph also read a wide range of literature about dying and death—clinical studies, personal narratives, religious and philosophical reflections, myth, poetry, and legend. She was also attentive to her own family systems, Judaism and the Salish First People of Vancouver Island.

In the Slender Margin is the culmination of this forty-year process of living with death. Joseph writes as a poet, “in short meditative chapters leavened wit insight, warmth, and occasional humor” that are connected with emotional rather than discursive logic.

Joseph describes what people believe, imagine, experience, and ritualize about living and dying, about the intertwining of the living and the dead, of animals and bees and the people who are dying or in death’s way. She neither discounts nor affirms; rather she accepts all of them as signs of the dynamic reality of human experience—experience in which dying and living are always present.

Many people in the western world are inclined to discount much of what Joseph describes, thinking of it as superstition or unscientific. The impact of Joseph’s sensitive description, however, is to soften this resistance so that fact-oriented westerners can be embraced by a wisdom that has long existed among the peoples of the world.

My academic approach to life and death was quickly overwhelmed by this narrative, and my personal grief two years after my wife’s death took control. I remember only a few of the facts and explanations Joseph recites, but find my grief softened and my spirit enlivened.

With her, I am ready to affirm that “The slender margin between the real and the unreal is the margin between factual truth and narrative truth. . .The factual truth is objective. The narrative truth opens the door to the mysterious” (p. 199).

With considerable firmness Joseph states that her purpose in writing this book was not the hope that it would be therapeutic, bringing her closer to her brother, although this it seems to have done. “I wrote as Joan Didion says, to find out what I was thinking. Along the way, I was surprised.”

She describes the book as a work of art that “lies somewhere between the corporeal and the spiritual: the sacred and the profane. I am closest to my mother and brother and innumerable others when I write about them.”

I, too, am a writer. Rather than poetry, my work has been academic prose. During the next two or three years, however, I want to write two monographs, one focusing on personal and family aspects of my life and the other on my work as theologian and religious historian.

Joseph’s distinction between factual truth and narrative truth will be an important guide as I choose memories that are important and then weave them into a narrative that hovers between the corporeal and the spiritual. I will write in order to understand what I think, and in the process, like Didion and Joseph, I hope to be surprised.

What happens to village death rituals when people move to town?

September 16, 2014
My Family's Ancestral Burial Gound

My Family’s Ancestral Burial Gound

The severely simple funeral ritual that I described in an earlier column was part of a complex system of community practices that surrounded dying persons, their families, and close friends with highly personalized expressions of love and support. This full set of activities allowed the community as a whole to respond to the breach that a death caused and draw together for healing and health.

My first experiences with funerals were in a rural community in northern Indiana during my three years as a seminary student. Older members of the congregation lived on farms their grandparents, some of whom remembered the Civil War, had homesteaded. Most families were still geographically concentrated, within easy driving distance of the old family farm, church, and cemetery. Families had been intertwined through at least three generations.

Of course, many had moved to the cities—Kokomo, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis—but even there the traditional patterns of village and country life persisted. My seminary professor, O. L. Shelton, had experienced similarly coherent ways of life in Oklahoma and Kansas City prior to coming to Indianapolis in mid career. Because the system for community action at the time of death was firmly in place, he could teach his students how to do their part.

People usually died at home, surrounded by family and close friends for whom the process of caring for loved ones as they died was part of what it meant to be family. The medicalization and hospitalization of dying and death had not yet developed.

It was assumed that the deceased would be embalmed, a process that took place in a local funeral home, some of which were still closely connected to furniture stores, by local people whom the community knew.

A day or two later, the visitation occurred, usually at the funeral home. The deceased lay in state, surrounded by flowers, the scene bathed in warm light that softened the pallor of death. Members of the family would gather in a comfortable room to greet friends and many people from the community at large.

Part of the process was to escort those who “came to pay their respects” to the casket to look at the corpse. Often visitors would reach down to clasp the hands, and often they would murmur how “natural” she or he looked. Tears were common, because for many of the grievers, the ties had been long and strong.

Newark Cemetery 2

A day or two later, the funeral took place at church, with coffin present. Here the immediacy of death as experienced at the visitation was compressed into the tight form of the religious ritual that was the formal, public rite of passage from this world to the next. Everyone knew who had died and who remained to grieve and names seemed hardly to be necessary.

Following this service, the coffin was wheeled to the church door where pall bearers carried it to the funeral coach that led many of the worshipers to the graveyard where the community had gathered many times to lay their own beloved dead into the grave. The committal was brief and direct: “dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”

The family then returned to the church where their friends in the congregation served them lunch as a sign of friendship and support as they began the process of turning their attention to reconstructing a new normal for their lives.

As these villagers moved west, they took these customs with them and they became established in towns everywhere. Two of the most vivid replications of village funeral practices that I have seen occurred in later years with the deaths of aged persons in Fresno, California followed by burial in the family cemetery up in the Sierra foothills village of Toll House, and Portland, Oregon, with final rites 150 miles to the south in the village of Creswell.

Several changes have occurred in American life that make this traditional pattern untenable: the medicalization of dying and death; the wide geographical spread of families; the commercialization of the funeral industry; the disappearance of the village and small town culture of solidarity; and the abandonment of coherent and agreed understandings of life that include reasonable expectations that life continues beyond the grave.

The results are twofold. First, the old ways, with clergy and churches at the center, are disappearing. Second, new patterns of remembrance and celebration are emerging, often with little sense of coherence or of the deeper meanings of life, especially of the life of the person who has died.

The challenge—and opportunity—for ministers today is to regain their work as ritualizers for communities that are increasingly in need of ceremonial systems that give coherence and meaning to dying and death.

Traveling Through

Traveling Through

Funerals the way I learned them 60 years ago

September 11, 2014

Second in a series on rituals at the time of death

Funeral Liturgy in "Christian Worship: A Service Book," 1953

Funeral Liturgy in “Christian Worship: A Service Book,” 1953

My first instructions on doing funerals came in 1954 early in my theological studies at the School of Religion, Butler University. My teacher was O. L. Shelton, dean and professor of church administration. Prior to coming to his faculty position, Shelton had been pastor of a Kansas City church with 2,500 members. His instruction was firmly grounded in practical experience.

Although I was barely into my 20s, about half of the class were returning to school on the G.I. bill. Some had been pastors prior to serving in World War II and already had been doing funerals. Others were like me, with virtually no experience with death and little knowledge of what should take place in the rituals with which the church marked the passing of people from this life into the next.

Shelton was a skillful teacher whose pastoral experience infused his classroom instruction. Whatever our previous practices might have been, we were inclined to listen carefully to his practical and sensitive guidance. My work as pastor and my early years of teaching as Shelton’s successor (twice removed) were influenced by his counsel. Five of the principles he taught have remained in my memory.

First, base your funeral practice on one of the patterns you find in a published book of worship. Since many of my classmates were Methodist, that meant they should use the funeral materials in the Methodist Ritual. For the majority of us in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ tradition, the book he recommended was the recently published Christian Worship: A Service Book, edited by G. Edwin Osborn. My copy, which I bought on November 16, 1955,, still bears the marks of the many times that I used it during my years of pastoral service.

Second, the sermon in the service should lift up one of the classic themes of life and death as proclaimed by the Christian faith rather than be a eulogy describing the life of the person whose funeral is being conducted.

Third, and this point is a direct follow-up of the second idea, the service should consist of scripture readings, music, sermon, and prayers. In fact, and this was an idea that surprised me but which I was willing to accept on his authority, it is unnecessary even to mention the name of the deceased in the service. As I remember his explanation, funerals had become events in which “people were being preached into heaven” and this was not their purpose.

The purpose of funerals, and this is the fourth point as I remember Shelton’s class, was twofold: to remember the deceased and to comfort the bereaved. This, he believed, could best be done by offering carefully composed, standardized prayers; hence the emphasis upon rituals in the recommended books of worship.

Fifth, funerals should be brief, never more than half an hour in length. This word of advice seemed to be consistent with what people mentioned to me when we would talk about a funeral for a loved one had died. One of the few requests they would make was, “Keep it brief.”

Normal practice for the funerals I conducted and others that I attended was for the casket to be present in the front of the congregation. When the funeral itself was over, the pastor would go to the head of the casket and the congregation would file past for their last viewing of the deceased. Then, the family and some others would drive in procession to the cemetery for a brief committal service and the first part of the actual burial.

One of the few items that students would discuss vigorously was whether the procession past the open casket in the church should be allowed. The preferred opinion was that the open casket and procession should be suppressed, on the grounds that their primary purpose was to display the embalmer’s skill.

At one of my first funerals, I came to a different point of view. The deceased was a village legend because of his mildly raucous ways. During the procession, his longtime buddy, stopped and with tear-filled eyes grasped and held the hands of his friend. It was one of the tenderest gestures I have ever seen in all of my pastoral experience.

Dr. Shelton was a persuasive teacher, and I continue to affirm part of what he taught me so long ago—especially his emphasis upon the funeral as a time to express a classic Christian theme about the meaning of life.

Almost from the beginning, however, I found myself demurring from the aggressive impersonalization of funeral services. Something more personal, it seemed to me, was needed.







Rituals at the time of death: Introducing a new series

September 2, 2014
Flowers at a Fresh Grave

Flowers at a Fresh Grave

No part of Christian liturgical practice in the United States has changed as radically as rituals when people die. As pastor, seminary professor, and family member I have given careful attention to this topic, gradually coming to significant changes of mind.

The death of my wife, Billie Lee Caton Watkins, on August 12, 2014, after 62 years of marriage and eight years with metastatic breast cancer, made it necessary to cut through conflicting ideas and practices in order to solemnize and celebrate her life in this world and to proclaim our faith that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

As summer draws to a close, I intend to resume regular postings on my blog with a series of columns in which I explore the changing patterns concerning funerals in ecumenical Protestant churches, outline the conclusions that I am reaching, raise questions for discussion, and suggest ideas for pastoral practice among liberal Christians in our time.

The first step in this process will be to repost previous blogs on this topic. In this way, I will refresh my own remembrance of what I have been thinking in the past two or three years. I will continue my reading of current literature that bears upon this subject and report on this material.

I welcome contributions to this ongoing series from readers of this blog. By reflecting upon our personal and pastoral experience, theological reflection, and liturgical practice, we can help our churches and their members come to renewed and healthful practices at the time that death comes.


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.