Those familiar with the writings of St. Francis of Assisi will recognize the line from the hymn “All Creatures of our God and King” based on his writings. He portrays death as “kind and gentle,” certainly a minority view in our culture and even in our faith. It bespeaks a familiarity with death that seems to have been more prevalent in previous generations than it is today.
Death got personal for me 2 weeks ago when my mother-in-law died unexpectedly. Mother-in-law jokes aside, she and I got along very well. She had sold her home of 40 years in Phoenix and built a house on our land in Michigan, living in our home with us for 5 months while we watched her house go up. She moved into her new house in March 2009, and got to enjoy it for one year. Mom was a part of our daily lives. My children would go over to “Nanna’s house” regularly, whether to learn to sew, to help out, or just to hang out with her. She’d come over for dinner once in a while and certainly was always with us for special occasions. During Easter Week, she fell ill and died.
At her wake in Phoenix, I was speaking with a friend who shared that her own dear father had passed away the previous month. He had been terminally ill and had a sense that his death was not too far off, and he had always wanted to “be awake at his own wake.” So he threw a St. Patrick’s Day party. He invited family and friends to join him in this day of revelry. Friends he hadn’t seen in over 20 years came, knowing that this would probably be the last time they saw him. He rejected his medications and his dialysis that day, and ate and drank whatever he wanted. He visited with everyone and had “the best day of his life.” The next morning, as his beloved wife of 40-plus years went to Mass, he passed away with two of his daughters holding his hands.
Perhaps it’s because of the frame of mind I’m in, with the grief from mom’s passing still fresh and likely to spring up at the slightest memory trigger, but I found that to be a beautiful story. It seems to me that our society sanitizes death, as it does so many other things, never addressing it except in the occasional Hallmark movie (or en masse in action flicks like Die Hard). And in a culture devoted to the avoidance of suffering, a culture that lives as if this life were all there is, it’s not surprising that we relegate death to the morticians, preferring not to think about this most fundamental of realities. Our local funeral director told us that hes spoken with many 40-year-old men who have never been to a wake. They avoid ’em like the plague, almost as if by refusing to face the deaths of others, they can thereby put their own off — or at least keep from having to think about it.
For the past few years, my law practice has focused on estate planning and probate guidance. And while I am sensitive to my clients’ sometimes emotional situations, I have maintained a detached, professional approach to death and have become rather matter-of-fact about it, which has influenced my entire household. Now, we don’t go around the house like Carthusian monks, greeting each other with a lugubrious “memento mori” (remember your death), but it seems to me that a healthy outlook on life includes a recognition and an acceptance of the reality that this is all going to end someday. And while there certainly is grief and loss, isn’t it healthy to include death in your view of life? Many people fear death, and perhaps rightly so. But a greater familiarity with it can only help us face it when it comes, for it inevitably will.