--Pete Townsend, “My Generation”
William Shakespeare called it “the undiscovered country”. Jesus warned his followers that no one knows when it will come, neither the time nor the place, and to believe otherwise was folly. “The Who” defiantly sang about it, as twenty something rockers, daring it to just take them before they all got too old.
There, I said it. Got the word and the concept right out there. Death. I hope you’ll keep reading. The cliché is that it is impolite socially to talk about politics, sex and religion. I’d add death to this taboo trinity. The end of life. The great equalizer, along with birth. The moment every last human being experiences at some point. No denying it. No negotiating it away. Mortals all are we who face mortality.
I get why death is not the stuff of every day conversation. It’s sad, the thought of us, others, no longer living on this side of the grass. It’s scary. What comes next? Folks of faith trust the comfort of an afterlife—I know I do—but still we resist talking about death. We push away talk of death because it is morbid. Because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Because in our youth obsessed world we work so hard to push it away.
Not everyone is so reluctant to talk about death. In this month’s issue of The Atlantic magazine, one writer declares exactly just when he wants to die: at 75 years of age. Not before. Not after. The writer, 57 year old Ezekiel J. Emanuel, is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
In “Why I Hope to Die at 75”, Emanuel writes, “I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss….But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining…robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute…It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”
If Emanuel was trying to provoke a response about the end of human life, he certainly did so. Some critics worried he advocates suicide—he does not. Some were offended by his unsympathetic stereotyped description of people in their mid seventies and beyond. I think of all the vital and amazing post 75 year old folks I know—including my own 100 year old grandfather---and I blanch at Emanuel’s generalizations. Some were upset because he dared to even talk about his own death in such a stark and honest way.
First: read the article and draw your own conclusions. And if Emanuel’s essay moves us to just think more about the end of life, he does a good thing. Not so much in his provocative opinions but in his prodding us as a culture to be much more intentional in planning for, being thoughtful about, and most important, talking directly to our loved ones, about our deaths, before our deaths.
I speak as one who has been in the death and dying business for twenty five years, as a clergyman. I am the one who is invited to be bed side when a family member is in their last days or hours. The one who gathers folks in a circle to pray. The one who sits in uncomfortable waiting rooms…waiting. For death.
Such moments are often profound, poignant, even beautiful. Yet such moments can also be marked by confusion, questions and anguish. “What would Mom want us to do?” “What were Grandpa’s last wishes?” “How did he want to die?” We ask because no one ever talked about death. No health care proxy was designated. Who makes the decisions? No orders were given by the family to “do not resuscitate” and so the patient is given heroic measures which result in gut wrenching, sometimes unnecessary medical procedures. Then a good life can lead to a not so good death.
Doesn’t have to be so. Not at all. Instead, we can talk about death with courage and clarity. Talk about death while we still have life. Talk about death and see these intimate conversations as a gift to those we love, wise preparation, and a compassionate legacy. Talk about death before circumstances beyond our power take hold. Talk about death so when that time comes—and it will—we’ll do the best we can with God and our loved ones, to live well and to die well.
Unlike “The Who” and Emanuel, I don’t hope I die before I get old. But I do want to talk about it.