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.