Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 8, Pages 153-165

Death creates chaos on every level . . . Out of this vandalized shalom emerges ritual–the orderly, tradition-based, formal performances that accompany our most profound events.

Page 155

Dr. Dugdale’s contrast between chaos and order is striking. The account of God’s creation of the world in Genesis 1 can be understood as God’s imposing order upon chaos. “The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss” (Genesis 1:2). “Then God said, ‘Let there be light'” (Genesis 1:3). God speaks light, form, and shape into existence, so that where there was chaos there is now the ordered world of day and night, sky, earth, and sea. And, according to the Book of Wisdom, “God did not make death” (Wisdom 1:13). According to the Biblical account, death would seem to be a return to the chaos that God did not make. According the New Testament, however, God restores order and light in the new creation when Christ “has put all his enemies under his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26).

For Christians, particularly Catholic Christians, the order of God’s new creation can be symbolized and even effected through ritual. In our rituals surrounding death, we experience that order when we join together in formally defined sets of prayerful words and actions. We also believe our prayers have power to effect, with God’s grace, the order that they symbolize. This is especially true of the sacraments. When a priest administers the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to a person who is dying, the sacrament effects the divine healing of God’s new creation that is symbolized in its ritual administration.

I have experienced this on countless occasions. When I arrive at a hospital room where a patient is dying, there are usually family and friends present, and they are often in a more-or-less chaotic state of distress. After I meet the patient, family, and friends, and give then time to express what they need to express, whether in words, cries, or tears, I invite them to gather in prayer. Soon the chaos is resolved into order. Individuals are united in common prayer. As a Catholic priest, I have a ritual for this occasion with greetings, prayers, readings, litanies, and sacraments performed by words and actions. We experience human order in our shared ritual. We believe that divine order is being accomplished through it.

The modern secular hospital has created its own rituals surrounding death . . . The ceremonial act of “pulling the plug” adheres to a prescribed order and formality . . . In Mr. Mitchell’s case, the head of the medical team met with him and his wife to establish that he was of sound mind and to confirm his request . . . The doctor informed the Mitchell family that . . . no one was trying to kill him by discontinuing life support, and no one was guaranteeing his death . . . The next step in the ritual is providing opportunity to loved ones to say farewell . . . When they were ready, they signaled to the medical team. The doctors arrived at Mr. Mitchell’s room and explained what would happen . . . When everyone was ready . . . the doctors pulled the tube out . . . The next moments are the most intense for the ritual’s observers, because there is no predicting what will happen. Will he resume conscious breathing or not? For a patient like Mr. Mitchell . . . death almost always ensues.

Pages 155-157

I have not experienced the “pulling the plug” ritual as a family member or friend of the person who is dying. I know that many of you have had that experience, and I hope some of you might be wiling to share it. I have sometimes been in meetings with families of patients who are deciding whether to have artificial ventilation withdrawn. More often, I experience this medical ritual at the points where it intersects with religious rituals. That often happens before the tube is withdrawn, when loved ones are saying their farewells. I usually anoint the patient within a ritual that includes the Apostolic Pardon and the Commendation of the Dying. Sometimes I do that after the tube has been withdrawn but the patient is sill alive. The other point of intersection is after the patient dies. The Church has a ritual for that too, including prayers, a reading and a litany. Most of the time, I do one or the other, depending on when I receive the call and am able to get there. On a few occasions, I have anointed patients who died soon afterward and I have remained to lead the prayers for the dead.

Whether or not we embalm, is it not curious that we willingly pass off responsibility for intimate rituals associated with attending to dead bodies? . . . It is worth noting that professionalizing the care of the dead is a relatively modern phenomenon.

Page 161

For all of us–Jewish or not, religious or secular–such rituals should prompt questions about how we might honor the bodies of the deceased.

Page 164

The first of these quotes follows Dr. Dugdale’s description of the embalming process, as practiced by Jenn Park-Mustacchio. The second follows her description of the traditional Jewish practice of tahara. The first practice is secular, professional, and individual. The second is religious and communal. In the questions Dr. Dugdale raises, she refers to “the care of” and “honor” of dead bodies. I think Dr. Dugdale asks good questions about how we care for and honor the bodies of our loved one’s. But I think the more basic questions is, “do we care for and honor the bodies of our loved one’s?” Do we regard the bodies of loved one’s as worth caring for and honoring?

The Jewish practice of takara that Dr. Dugdale described includes talking or singing to dead bodies and showing concern for their modesty. That might seem silly or weird to modern people like us. But it is rooted in the Jewish understanding of the body as essential to a person’s identity. Christians inherited this from Jews, although we have frequently ignored this notion of bodily personhood that was essential to early Christian understandings of matter of faith like the resurrection of Jesus. Modern Christians too often think of heaven as a disembodied spiritual state of bliss. We do this despite professing faith in the “resurrection of the body” when we recite the Apostles Creed.

Do we care for and honor the bodies of our loved one’s? Do we think of dead bodies as integral parts of the persons whom we love? Do we treat dead bodies as having a worth or dignity that we ought to respect? Or is a dead body just a symbol of a person who is really just a spirit? Is the body something we can dispose of in whatever way we find spiritually meaningful? How do our cremation and burial practices imply answers to these questions? Lots of questions this week! I look forward to reading your answers.

4 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 8, Pages 153-165”

  1. The resurrection of the body challenges us to recognize that we are both body and spirit. The body is our outer shell, our carapace, protecting us from harsh conditions, reminding us of the impermanence of life as it changes, and ultimately, a “home” we leave behind–at least temporarily. It seems to me that this highly functioning ‘shell’ deserves recognition and respect, as it has both defined and comforted us throughout our lifetimes.

    The challenge of honoring the body becomes more difficult, I believe, if our bodies seem to desert us. When our body leaves its post as our comforter, protector from the invasion of viruses and other illnesses, and when our secure “home” becomes diseased, deformed, or just decayed with age, we cannot but help feel betrayed. That betrayal causes us to question its role, and to resist honoring it. It has abandoned its job, and so we want to abandon it.

    I think the trend towards more and more frequent cremation of Catholic bodies speaks to this. Many individuals, and in my experience, increasingly Catholic individuals, want to dispose of the body; it no longer serves us and so every trace of it must vanish. To me, this is a willful acceleration of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”– an intentional and rapid, sometimes angry, dismissal.

    I disagree. I believe that our physical form must be respected; indeed, it is visible evidence that we are wonderfully made. And even when our bodies are altered by disease or age or deformity, our bodies remind us that we are both body and spirit. Both made by God to serve Him in this world. Without our bodies, we could not achieve the earthly purpose for which we are made. That recognition should inspire us to honor out bodies in death, and anticipate them in the world to come.

    Awaiting the glorious resurrection of our bodies is beautiful and life-affirming. Our rituals serve an important reminder and affirmation of this awe-inspiring mystery of our faith.

  2. Vera O – For me, having been close to the death of close relatives several times, very different situations…as a lay person, we do turn over the care of the body to strangers…and perhaps my religious background says that is ok…even my elderly dear mom, in her 90s, as I entered her home , having been told over the phone to hurry by my other sister “she is gone” from end stage heart and kidney issues…just prior to my scheduled visit, as I bent down to hug her and hold her hands one more time …I deeply felt/knew she was “gone”…my dear mother’s smile had left, ..and so forth…and the same for my dear sister, leaving a Neuro ICU…having held her hand and been with her for days on end, in the final moment, “she” was gone…the earthly remains were what remained. I recall fixing her sheets/blanket for her comfort (or mine??) for her modesty, etc. but the SOUL had left the body…she had gone on to her maker, her creator, as had my mom…Once that soul leaves the body, only the (earthen)vessel is left, and not much else!! We do respect the formalities and rituals, but the actual very essence of the individual is truly gone, veritably , having “passed away”….a deep knowing and understanding comprehension that it is “over” …at least this side of the journey… Of course, I am in my sixth decade now …and my faculties have grown, with God’s help and guidance, …but, in my early 20s when my dad passed quite abruptly via cardio infarct massive, while I was out on a movie date gone for a few hours, I returned to find a very empty place…where my mom was weeping and I wept too. I wandered through our apartment to smell his clothes in the closet (bearing his scent) and his “to do” list on the table…..to make sense of the huge not prepared for loss..I relied totally on the Rituals to “get through” and help myself , my mom, and also my married sisters deal with this instant loss of our beloved father….”I have grown, I have changed” as the expression says. Today, in the Catholic Eucharistic chapel at Columbia Presbyterian NYP hospital, there is a plaque “lord help me to navigate the changes in my life”..a steering wheel for a ship, I meditate before it now, each time I take my husband for his treatments and tests and etc. , with my husband, facing yet another serious heart situation quite soon…the way I did with my sister’s pre covid cancer recurrence/metastasis . I look for “order” and “meaning” in the silence of the tiny chapel, with the tiny altar and the meaningful plaque on the wall..(.together with the Blessed Mother/Sacred Heart statues.). Thank goodness for rituals; thank heaven for faith.

  3. This chapter about the Jewish ritual of Tamara preparing the body for burial brings back many memories. As a young nurse I was taught to do something very similar to prepare bodies for the morgue. I was taught this by fellow nurses and must find out from them if this was hospital policy or something handed down one nurse to another. It was always the last thing we could do for a patient that we usually knew quite well. It was comforting to us and we believed that the patient somehow knew we were doing this one last thing for them. When my Mother died at home surrounded by my father and sisters, I attempted to do this for her. My family was shocked and didn’t want me to do it. I grieving too much to explain and push for it. Often during Lent when I read about Joseph and Nicodemus preparing Jesus’s body for the tomb, I remember that day and wished I had persisted.

  4. In our modern culture where the care of the living body is professionalized, it seems logical that care of the dead body would also be outsourced. We are accustomed to seeking educated and experienced specialists to aid us with the most basic of bodily tasks like cutting our hair or developing our exercise routines. We rely on medical professionals to keep the living body functioning optimally. And when we can no longer care for ourselves, personal care aides provide assistance with the most intimate of hygiene tasks.

    Although I have provided care for my loved ones when necessary, there was a moment when I knew that new role would forever change the balance of our relationship–despite my efforts to respect their modesty, maintain their dignity and honor their person. With regard to both the living and the dead, we rationalize that our loved ones would not want us to see them that way.

    Additionally, we have become a very specialized society. When we want the best for ourselves and for our loved ones, we seek the help of professionals who are highly accomplished. I may be able to watch a YouTube video on embalming, but I know better than to attempt it myself. For our protection, our society has developed very specific laws and licensing requirements for these situations.

    And so we are faced with the contemporary reality–as impersonal as it may seem–the first and last people to see us naked are usually complete strangers!

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