This is my 336th post about death and dying on this blog. And I am now into the final month of this yearlong project.
I am amazed and grateful that I get to contemplate dying so intentionally and comfortably before it is happening. I know that I will not always be up for this work.
Some friends of mine, while they have been hospitalized or sick, have testified to me that it is not possible for them to read and think about death under such circumstances. It seems too raw and too sad.
This makes sense.
We have investment accounts and retirement savings so that we do not need to think and worry too much about money later in life.
It seems worthwhile to store away reflection on the last things and to build an accounting of what matters ultimately when we are young and healthy so that we do not need to worry about this so much when we are sick or dying.
In a 1994 speech at a conference on “Spirituality and Healing”, Wendell Berry spoke about the importance of good food to a person’s healing, saying:
You would think also that a place dedicated to healing and health would make much of food. But here is where the disconnections of the industrial system and the displacement of industrial humanity are most radical. Sir Albert Howard saw accurately that the issue of human health is inseparable from the health of the soil, and he saw too that we humans much responsibly occupy our place in the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay, which is the health of the world. Aside from our own mortal involvement, food is our fundamental connection to that cycle. But probably most of the complaints you hear about hospitals have to do with the food, which, according to the testimony I have heard, tends to range from unappetizing to sickening. Food is treated as another unpleasant substance to inject. And this is a shame. For in addition to the obvious nutritional link between food and health, food can be a pleasure. People who are sick are often troubled or depressed, and mealtimes offer three opportunities a day when patients could easily be offered something to look forward to. Nothing is more pleasing or heartening than a plate of nourishing, tasty, beautiful food artfully and lovingly prepared.
Anything less is unhealthy, as well as a desecration. Why should rest and food and ecological health not be the basic principles of our art and science of healing? Is it because the basic principles already are technology and drugs? Are we confronting some fundamental incompatibility between mechanical effciency and organic health? I don’t know. I only know that sleeping in a hospital is like sleeping in a factory and that the medical industry makes only the most tenuous connection between health and food and no connection between health and the soil. Industrial medicine is as little interested in ecological health as is industrial agriculture.
While we’re alive, we have a lot of workshops, education, and professional development on how to do things more strategically.
But, when is the last time you considered a strategy for how to die better?
The other day, I came across this great podcast episode by Dr. Yosefa (Fogel) Wruble on precisely this.
In it, she reflects on how Moses is an exemplar of dying well.
Here are three intriguing reasons she gives, which continue to be instructive and resonant today:
1) Appoint your successor
“One of the biggest gifts that a leader can give to his or her followers, to his or her community, is the clear – very clear – appointment of a successor. We know so many Hasidic sects and groups and different political parties and there’s so much history surrounding the lack of appointment of a successor and whenever I read the number of passages in which Joshua is appointed, it always makes my heart so happy because it’s one of the most basic lessons of leadership: When you’re a leader, learn how to delegate and when you’re done leading, when your time has come to a close, make sure that you find someone who can take your place and who can bring the institution or this group of people into their next era.”
Fr. Mark Goring, CC of the parish I attended in Ottawa likes to preach often on the first verse of the second chapter of the Book of Sirach which says, “My child, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal.”
It is a startling sentence when we stop to think about it because most of the time we go through life trying to prepare ourselves for loving relationships, meaningful successes, a reasonable amount of prosperity, and an abundance of opportunities.
What, if anything, are we doing to prepare ourselves for an ordeal, for tests, for trials?
What young person, on being asked what he or she is doing or hopes to do, will respond that they are preparing themselves to suffer hardships honourably?
And yet, the verse above speaks about “preparing yourself” – not even being prepared simply by God or by circumstances – but intentionally and resolutely preparing yourself for the tests and trials of life that are sure to come.
What difference would it make if we set ourselves up not only for success but for ordeals?
And, what sort of education and training constitute such preparation?