Commemoration for All Ages

Today marks the 81st anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre and is the designated day of remembrance for the victims.

I don’t remember really learning about this event until I moved to Poland.

But once I was in Poland, I saw lots of monuments and memorials commemorating the more than 20,000 Poles who were murdered by Soviets in 1940. Since many of the mass graves were discovered in the Katyn Forest, this became the name by which the massacre came to be known.

One of the prominent Katyn memorials I saw was this one at the Lipowa Cemetery in Lublin, Poland.

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The Task Report in Death

This evening I’ve been reading Tomáš Halík’s book, I Want You To Be: On the God of Love in which the thirteenth chapter is titled, “Stronger than Death.”

In this chapter, the Czech priest, philosopher, and Templeton Prize laureate discusses how, “in order to perceive death as a gift, one must first deeply experience life as a gift.”

Gratitude is the appropriate response to a gift but, importantly, life is not only a gift but also a responsibility. Halik, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaks of life as an assignment:

Death is not a mere returning of the gift of life. Only loans are returned, and to return a gift is always regarded as an insult to the donor. The entrance ticket to life (think of the conversation between Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov) is not returnable. Life is not just a gift; it is also an assignment. At the moment of death, the handing on of the life that was given to us as an opportunity and entrusted to us as a task is—in religion terms—a sort of completed task report, the hour of truth about the extent to which we have fulfilled or squandered the opportunity we were given. Aversion to that religious concept of death is possibly only assisted by arguments from the arsenal of materialistically interpreted science, although in fact it is more likely based on the anxiety aroused by the need to render an account to a Judge who cannot be bribed or influenced. Compared to that the atheist view that everything comes to an end at death is a comforting dose of opium!

How often do we consider giving God an inventory about how we have spent our lifetime?

To be accountable for our days is a basis for man’s proper dignity.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible.”

And responsibility is not only a matter of what we do but, most importantly, of who we become through the moral footprint of our deeds in this world.

Photo: With Fr. Tomáš Halík in Prague in April 2016

If You Can Tell A Story

Is it really possible to blog about death in a way that is consistently uplifting and enlivening every single day of the year?

It’s certainly a challenge.

And is it possible to tell edifying stories about the difficult, messy, and painful realities of life with grit and sincerity?

Not only is it possible. It’s vitally necessary.

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Happy Are Those Who Don’t Fear Death

This evening I was having a chat with a friend who shared with me about growing up with parents who differ considerably in terms of their outlook on the risks of life.

My friend’s father is the social, energetic, and adventurous type. Whereas her mother has always been more cautious – even to the point of being afraid of flying, anxious in the passenger seat, and worried about safety.

“Maybe it comes from a good place,” my friend reflected, wanting to offer the most charitable interpretation. “Maybe it’s a matter of gratitude – knowing that you have a lot and simply wanting it to stay that way, not wanting to risk damage or disruption to that which you cherish so much.”

My friend told me that her mother’s fear of loss can be crippling but that, as a mother herself, she can also understand it to some extent.

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What We Take With Us When We Die

In my Jewish course on death, Journey of the Soul: A Fresh Look at Life, Death, and the Rest—in Peace, we learned the tale depicted in the video below about a Jewish billionaire whose request to be buried with his favourite socks was denied.

Take a look:

As the rabbi teaching my class said, “When we die, we don’t take our bank accounts with us, but only our charitable receipts.”

“In half an hour, I’ll know more than you do”

On this Ash Wednesday, I am recalling those words spoken by Fr. Alfred Delp to a chaplain shortly before the Nazis executed the priest by hanging.

Throughout history, there are certain persons who display such a remarkably supernatural outlook toward death.

Here are a handful of examples excerpted from St. Alphonsus Maria De Liguori’s Preparation for Death:

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Giving Death Its Due

On of my favourite sections of the book After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition by Hillel Halkin is about the proper measure of grief in our lives and our communities.

Hilkin writes:

“The basic approach of the rabbis in Semahot [a rabbinic text on death and mourning] is to allow sufficient space for grief while channeling it into formulaic expressions and surrounding it with numerous prescriptions that make sure its desirable limits are not exceeded. Death is a blow that must not be faced alone; it requires the support of others; the emotions it arouses must be acknowledged and given voice to; yet they are best expressed in time-tested ways that never carry mourners past the point from which they can find their way back to normal functioning within a reasonable amount of time. Mourning is not just a private affair. It is the concern of the community, which is thrown off balance if one of its members fails to recover from a death quickly enough. Life has its rights, too. If a funeral and a wedding procession meets in the streets of the town, Semahot rules, the mourners must turn aside from the path of the bride, since ‘respect for the living precedes respect for the dead.’ Should you have to choose between paying a condolence call and attending a celebration for the birth of someone’s child, choose the celebration.”

Next, Halkin recounts this story from the same source about Rabbi Akiva when his son became seriously sick:

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Solidarity Unto Death

It was on this date six years ago that Islamists beheaded 21 Coptic Christians along the beach in Libya.

I have been thinking about this all day and remembering the video footage that is seared in my memory.

What difference is it making?

What does the martyrdom of these Copts have to do with us today?

To this question, I found an extraordinary piece published today by Lord David Alton.

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Justifying Our Contempt for Death

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Wind, Sand and Stars, the author discusses the character of both his friend Guillaumet as well as that of an old gardener in juxtaposition with the story of a suicide. Take a look at the contrast between them that he paints by his description:

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Most Want to Die at Home

Surveys consistently indicate that the majority of people would prefer to die at home instead of in a hospital. However, a minority actually do.

Cicely Saunders International just published You Matter Because You Are You, an action plan better palliative care, in which the charity explores the key challenges faced at the end of life.

The report notes that “Too many people with life-limiting illnesses – as well as those approaching death – spend long periods of time in hospital, in part due to a lack of social or community care. Meanwhile, hospital
admissions are rising to unsustainable levels across the country, something that was made all the more apparent as parts of the NHS risked being overwhelmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Most people want to die at home and most hospital workers would be in favour of much greater home care.

Some of the main obstacles to this include: the weakness of social and familial ties, lack of “coordination and information sharing between health and social care providers”, and inadequate emphasis on professional palliative home care.

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