The new year, besides being the traditional time to make well-meaning resolutions, gives us an opportunity to reexamine our assumptions — the ground we stand on. It can be a good time to rethink old ideas that probably deserve a reexamination.
Could our notion of a “good death” benefit from reconsideration at this time? As a longtime hospice volunteer, a musician and one who has lived through my share of deaths in the family and among friends, my thoughts around death seem to well up every year when I sing "Auld Lang Syne." Lately, I have been resonating to these lines in particular:
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
I wonder, could that proverbial “cup of kindness” play a role in “good death” scenarios?
It has long been a tenet of most religions that the pains of death (along with the pangs of childbirth) are ordeals to be suffered. In the oft-repeated Hail Mary prayer we Christians — and especially Catholics — ask for Mary’s prayers “at the hour of our death,” when we assume our ordeal will be at its worst. Indeed, a slow, lingering death can be a pretty gruesome affair. Thank goodness we live in the post-1967 era, when routine hospice and palliative (“comfort”) care were introduced in England and the United States. Modern narcotics may kill the pain, but protracted suffering can still be dreadful.
When Paul the Apostle asks rhetorically in one of his letters, “Death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor 15:5), I want to reply, based on first-hand observation: “Look around, Paul. Death’s sting is not hard to find.” Death hurts! It is one of the most painful and perplexing issues that we humans face, whether alone or together.
Many Christians and most Catholics today worship a God who has miraculously triumphed over death — vanquished death. During our Easter liturgies, we optimistically proclaim “Jesus is risen! Death is no more!” Some of us might pretend to believe it, but most, I suspect, know what’s coming.
We know that death still walks hand in hand with life. Our hearts will stop beating sooner or later. We wonder about how we and our loved ones are going to deal with our own inevitable demise, especially if it comes slowly, with progressive loss of the very capacities that define our human dignity: the ability to think and to remember, the ability to empathize and communicate, even the ability to care for ourselves — to handle our personal hygiene.
Hans Küng, the noted Catholic priest, author and theologian, has been thinking about these very problems lately, as he approaches his own slow death by Parkinson’s disease, compounded by a loss of vision (macular degeneration).
In the third and last volume of his memoirs (October 2013), he wrote, in German, “I don't want to go on existing as a shadow of myself. Human beings have a right to die when they see no hope of continuing to live according to their very own understanding of how to go on living in a humane way.”
Küng, a native of Switzerland, questions why his church and German law deny people the right to assisted suicide. In Switzerland, “good death” organizations are allowed to offer incurably ill patients lethal medication which the patients themselves can then take. Laws of similar scope exist now in three of the United States: Oregon, Washington and Vermont. According to the Death with Dignity National Center, they “allow mentally competent, terminally-ill adult state residents to voluntarily request and receive a prescription medication to hasten their death.”
In a LifeSiteNews column on this topic, Küng is quoted as saying, “No person is obligated to suffer the unbearable as something sent from God.” He insists that “people can decide this for themselves and no priest, doctor or judge can stop them.”
What a courageous stand!
Predictably, the “pro-life” (they should be called “pro-biological life”) forces are already mounting a campaign to discredit this thoughtful man, labeling his advocacy for one’s right to embrace one’s own death as morally equivalent to an abortion. Shame on them! This topic begs for perception and discussion, not condemnation.
How easily we all overlook the example of Jesus Christ himself, who is portrayed in the gospels as giving up his life — yes, embracing his own death — at an early age. He could have disappeared into the wilderness after the last supper. No one dares to challenge Jesus’ morality in giving up his life when he sensed that his time had come.
No one even wonders whether the thrust of the Centurion’s lance into the side of Jesus, hanging on the cross, might have actually been an act of compassion on the soldier’s part — a coup de grâce, rather than a hollow gesture to fulfill Scripture, as the story goes.
Clearly, there is much more that we as a humane society — especially we Christians and Catholics — need to look at with fresh eyes as we explore the issues surrounding “compassion and choices” at the end of life.
Will we be ready, if our long lives lead us down an inhumane path of suffering and incapacity, to take a cup of kindness ... for auld lang syne? Will we be able to make that choice for ourselves, while we are still mentally competent?
Will we love ourselves enough to spare ourselves needless suffering, and spare our families the grief of witnessing it, as we approach our inevitable deaths? And will our churches and faith communities, if asked, somehow be able to respond to this new reality with prayers, symbols, and rituals that support those preparing to drink from the proverbial cup of kindness as their lives draw to a close?
— Thomas Heck is a member of and music minister for the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which celebrates Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are Heck's own.