Revelations in Death’s Wake

My father-in-law and my mother died two weeks to the day apart. I was present both times when, in civil terms, they “breathed their last” but more importantly, if invisibly, their souls separated from their bodies.

We bury my mother today.

I haven’t been avoiding this topic. I haven’t written about it mostly because I don’t really have my thoughts collected. (Yeah, I know that hasn’t always stopped me.) Although this blog has been something of a Journal, I’ve not shared all that many of my “most personal” thoughts and experiences. There are just too many interesting things in the world that aren’t me or my feelings.

But here’s one that surprised me. These deaths have left huge holes in our family’s schedule of the last few years. The Saturday after my mother’s death, we arose and said, basically, “What now?” Saturday morning meant I visited my mother in nursing home, which I did once each week. But she wasn’t there (and the funeral home didn’t need drop-by visitors). Every morning meant my wife visited her father, as did every afternoon and, increasingly, evenings and in the middle of the night if he awoke delusional from a TIA. But he wasn’t there, either.

So we’re disoriented. That’s a surprise. The extent of the disorientation is a bigger surprise, maybe coming from the double-whammy of two such deaths so quickly. We need re-oriented. I want to avoid self indulgence, but to much stiff upper lip can lead to madness, methinks.

Second, I hate modern, efficiency obsession. My father-in-law pre-arranged cremation, and as he was living far from his very few remaining family, there was no visitation and, as of yet, no memorial service of any sort.

It was all very efficient, dammit.

Say what ill you will of the modern funeral industry, but it gives at least a little chance to grieve. My father-in-law didn’t think of that, or didn’t think anyone would grieve him, or something. And for much of my daily life, I’m surrounded by people who intend to do much the same thing to their families. “I don’t need my body any more. Haul it out with the trash and incinerate it.”

My mother’s soul, with all due respect, was not “freed” from her body. It was wrested from her body by the great enemy, death, and will be reunited with it in the great and glorious Resurrection from the dead at our Lord’s second coming. Christians don’t believe in “the immortality of the soul” simpliciter; we believe in the Resurrection of the body. Insofar as modern Christians have come to think and act otherwise, they are sub-Christian. You can look it up in the Creed if you’d care to.

Third, I’m happy that mother’s death wasn’t over-medicalized. I’m a right-to-lifer to the core, but that doesn’t mean torturing people to keep them alive. Mother issued a no code request nine years before her death. Resuscitation efforts on her were unthinkable, with her rheumatoid arthritis and brittle bones. It is appointed unto man once to die.

Yeah, there was oxygen and an air mattress and the electrical whir to keep them working. There also was morphine to keep her from hyperventilating and Ativan to reduce her anxiety, which had become chronic. But no monitors, no medical people in the room at death. When I thought my mother had died, I went and felt for a pulse, wrist and neck. I didn’t call for a nurse immediately. I said goodbye, commended her to the Lord, and then got a nurse to make it official.

Then I stayed with the body until the funeral home came, and as they lifted her onto the gurney.

Fourth, I couldn’t pay my mother’s body as much respect as I’d have liked. Rod Dreher writes of the sudden death of a youngish man in their little mission parish. They were ready for the eventual death of someone, and they handled it in the Orthodox manner.

It’s kind of creepy to turn our loved ones over to professionals who will needlessly replace their blood with formaldehyde, primp them, make them up, and try to make them look alive lest we be reminded too powerfully of the last enemy. And although my father-in-law chose it, I find cremation creepier still. But we Orthodox are living in a land of liberal western Christianity, and there’s a point where resistance is, if not futile, a bit over-the-top obsessive.

Fifth, I no longer have the illusion that I can’t be that old because my mother and father-in-law are living. It’s now official: I’m next. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

That’s about all I’m ready to share yet. If I figure death out, you’ll be the first to know.

UPDATE: One afterthought. It was surprising how unsuitable were all the standard “verses” the funeral home had to offer. “God hath not promised skies always blue ….” Nah. “I have loved you with an everlasting love ….” Beautiful, and true, but out of context. God spoke that through the prophet to Israel, not to individuals. And so on.

Then they commented that they could do anything I wanted. I picked Romans 8:38-39:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

SECOND UPDATE: David Mills, coincidentally, feels somewhat toward cremation as I do.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Fidelity

I attended a Wake Thursday, only we don’t call them that any more.

In the coffin was a 32-year-old man-boy. In line as one approached mother and step-father, were scrapbook pictures of his younger versions, beaming with delight at 4th of July sparklers and other such simple pleasures. He “enjoyed listening to music, watching movies, and sharing his contagious joy. He fought the good fight and is awaiting his crown of glory.”Read More »

Making dead men live

I really don’t intend to channel Fr. Stephen day-by-day. You can subscribe yourself, after all. I don’t even intend to have Orthodox testimonials as a regular feature. That’s a worthy goal, but I bring nothing unique to such efforts.

But for the second day in a row Fr. Stephen  has hit it out of the park, contrasting the Orthodox view of salvation to views common today – a theme that “recurs because it is so fundamental to the Christian faith and is at the same time largely unknown in our modern world.” Indeed it is.

Reduced to aphorism, the Orthodox view is that “Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.”

We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

The sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit view that Christ indeed came to make bad men good strikes me as a variety of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

It is the deism that distinguishes the non-Orthodox view at issue today from the view that Christ came to secure the forensic declaration of our righteousness so we could get into heaven. This view I know first-hand to be common among evangelicals, fundamentalists and Calvinists – all of which I arguably have been in the past, though I would have denied being a fundamentalist.

Among the ramifications of the Orthodox view are some interesting comments Fr. Stephen makes about drinkin’ ‘n smokin’ and other fundy taboos.