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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

The Rise of Cremations and Our Need to be with the Dead

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While we were planning a funeral for her 22-year-old son, Scott, she put down her beer, took the cigarette from her lips, and said, “So, I remind you of the Virgin Mary?” A lighter moment amid grief. Scott died from a long and debilitating illness. He may have weighed 80 pounds in the end.

I lived a few doors down from Scott and his family for four years. His sisters babysat my kids. I was Scott’s den leader in Cub Scouts. As disease ravaged his young body, Scott graduated from college in a wheelchair. I was so privileged to be a part of his care.

In Scott’s last days, one of my fellow chaplains called me as he was preparing to leave town on vacation. He was aware I was an old friend of Scott and his family. He asked if I could check in on Scott and even do the funeral if he died. I was glad to do it.

On my second visit to see Scott in our hospice in-patient unit, I could tell he was taking his last breaths. His mom and sisters were at his side. He had been in such great pain that he was totally sedated. His breathing stopped. The tears flowed after months of anticipating this moment.

I summoned the nurse. She asked Scott’s mother, “Would you like to hold him?” Of course, she would. It had been months since she could even touch him because of the pain.

The nurse gathered the sheet around Scott’s body and placed him in his mother’s lap. She held him tenderly, stroking his face, and telling him of her love. I later told a friend of the scene and he said it reminded him of Michelangelo’s Pietà. It was indeed a very similar scene, a mother cradling the body of her broken son.

A few days later, I told Scott’s mother about my friend’s comment. That’s when, beer and cigarette in hand, she said, “So, I remind you of the Virgin Mary?”

This experience came to mind as I read a Washington Post story about the stunning rise in the use of cremation. Now, 57% of our dead are cremated compared to 27% just two decades ago. Along with the traditional casket burials, Americans are having less to do with the dead. Many have no rituals at all surrounding the death of one they love.

Undertaker Author Thomas Lynch

Many want to avoid the greater expense of a traditional funeral and burial. But, perhaps, many want to avoid being around the dead body or the emotional strain of the rituals. Thomas Lynch, a Michigan poet and funeral director of 50 years said in the Post article, “People want the body disappeared, pretty much. I think it reminds us of what we lost.” In the United States, Lynch notes, “this is the first generation of our species that tries to deal with death without dealing with the dead.”

I will say, there is another trend that runs counter to this criticism that we Americans are avoiding the dead. More and more people are dying at home which gives the family the opportunity to be with the departed. A century ago, almost everyone died at home. This can provide that ritual lost with the demise of the traditional funeral.

Rest in peace.

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

The Brutal Truth of Growing Through Grief…It’s Normal

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Barbara Lazear Ascher’s husband gave her the news in the most straightforward way. “Looks like pancreatic cancer,” he told her matter-of-factly after the test results came back.

 She and their friends gave him a wonderful death. They had theme parties with matching drinks. “Dying was intimate, and I drew close,” Ascher writes in her moving memoir, “Ghosting,” “We were single-minded, welded together in the process of this long leave-taking.”

This is how David Brooks starts a recent piece in The New York Times, “Some People Turn Suffering Into Wisdom.” I might as well borrow from one of the best. Brooks often writes about living life — its goodness and the difficulties. In this one, he covers the landscape of grief and trauma and moving on.

 This kind of disorientation is brutal … and normal. Grief and suffering often shatter our assumptions about who we are and how life works. The social psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman notes that many people assume that the world is benevolent, that life is controllable, and that we are basically good people who deserve good things. Suffering and loss can blast that to smithereens.

My few (and relatively small) hard knocks in life taught me years ago about the lesson of impermanence. That is — all things change. The grief that follows loss bumps up to this piece of wisdom. This is normal. I have written before about my habit of journaling. I didn’t say then that I tend to journal more and with more passion when things are not going so well in my life. Brooks introduced an exercise to use journaling to tell our stories differently.

 Gradually the process of re-storying begins. This is taking a now fragmented life and slowly cohering it into a new narrative. The social psychologist James Pennebaker has people do free expressive writing, sometimes for just 20 minutes a day for four days. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar, he advises; just let it flow — for yourself. In the beginning, people who take part in expressive writing exercises sometimes have different voices and handwriting styles. Their stories are raw and disjointed. But their narratives grow more coherent and self-aware as the days go by. They try on different perspectives. Some studies show that people who go through this process emerge with lower blood pressure and healthier immune systems.

I never took my blood pressure and can’t quantify how much, if at all, journaling helped me. I would have to go back through the losses in my life and do it over WITHOUT journaling — no, thank you. But I do agree with Brooks. Some people take grief and loss and make a new life.

Gradually, for some people, a new core narrative emerges answering the question, “What am I to do with this unexpected life?” It’s not that the facts are different, but a person can step back and see them differently. New frameworks are imposed, which reorganize the relationship between the events of a life. Spatial metaphors are helpful here: I was in a dark wood. This train is not turning around. I’m climbing a second mountain.

David Brooks’ most recent book is The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

It’s Your Choice: You Can Change Your Views of Aging and Improve Your Life

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I seldom picture myself becoming a demented, incontinent, and disabled patient in a nursing home. My future may indeed look like that because both of my parents ended up in such a state. On top of that, I cared for hundreds of such patients as a chaplain. Many of them were my current age (74) or younger. Why not me?

I did prepare for such a future, having bought long-term care insurance twenty years ago. Again, my parents’ aging convinced me to get the policy. They both used every dollar from their nursing home insurance benefits.

Choosing more positive aging

An article I read recently prompted these thoughts. It was titled, “It’s Your Choice: You Can Change Your Views of Aging and Improve Your Life.” Here is how it starts:

Becca Levy, a professor at Yale University, studies the way our beliefs about aging affect physical and mental health.(JULIA GERACE)

“People’s beliefs about aging have a profound impact on their health, influencing everything from their memory and sensory perceptions to how well they walk, how fully they recover from disabling illness, and how long they live.

“When aging is seen as a negative experience (characterized by terms such as decrepit, incompetent, dependent, and senile), individuals tend to experience more stress in later life and engage less often in healthy behaviors such as exercise. When views are positive (signaled by words such as wise, alert, accomplished, and creative), people are more likely to be active and resilient and to have a stronger will to live.”

Being blind is “wonderful”

I remember asking an 80-something-old patient at the nursing home what it was like being blind. She said, “Wonderful. You learn so much being blind. I can tell who is coming into my room by the sound of their footsteps. I listen to talking books. It is just one learning experience after another.” That lady would be one of those resilient folks mentioned in the article.

Judith Graham of Kaiser Health News interviewed Yale professor Dr. Becca Levy about her newly-released book, Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live. The bottom line is that if we have a more positive and hopeful view of aging when we are younger, we will more successfully move through those years to the end.

In the interview, Dr. Levy gives several suggestions on assessing our attitudes and how to develop more positive ones. Maybe someday I, too, can say being blind is “wonderful.”

 

 

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

My Problem with “Happiness is a choice”

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I am tempted to say that the cliché, “Happiness is a choice,” is wrong on the surface. But, over and over again we see people endure great hardships and they choose not to be overwhelmed. I am reminded of Viktor Frankl and his “last of the human freedoms.” The following appears in my book Light in the Shadows:

“This idea that we have a choice in our happiness is not original with me. Viktor Frankl is the one who told us this is the ‘last of the human freedoms’—the freedom to choose how we will respond in any given set of circumstances. He was a Jew and a psychiatrist who learned about this freedom as a prisoner in several concentration camps during the Second World War. Hear his words:

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action.… Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.… We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“[I]n the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.… I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost.… It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful. (Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, New York: Washington Square Press, 1984, pp. 86-87.)

“The sort of person we become is the result of an inner decision and not the result of the influences of… cancer… the illness of a child… divorce… disability.

“A thought for this day: When the circumstances seem to be overwhelming, I will know I have a choice in how I am going to respond. I will not blame my illness, or other people, for how I feel inside.”

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

“God has a lot of explaining to do.”

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The daughter started her eulogy, “I am so angry. God has a lot of explaining to do….” I sat there, stunned, now wondering how in the world I could follow such a performance.

I’ve had the opportunity to officiate many funerals over the years. This was supposed to be one of the “easy” ones. The dead man’s family had a relative who once was a member of my church in Vienna, Virginia, back in the day. None of the family attended that church now — or any church. So, when the man died suddenly of a heart attack at 64, they turned to us for a minister to conduct the service — kind of a rent-a-preacher.

Our pastor was out of town, and it fell to me to fill in. It sounded straightforward enough. They just needed me to be an emcee, so to speak. The daughter would do a eulogy, and we would open the floor for others to give tribute to the recently departed.

As I met with the daughter and granddaughter to plan the funeral, they made it clear that this family was not religious and did not want a lot of God-talk. They agreed to a prayer and Psalm 23. That was that. No sermon. Little religion. I would just show up at the funeral home, conduct the service, get paid, and go home.

I walked into a whole new world

When I entered the funeral home before the service, I walked into a whole new world (for me, at least). At the front of the chapel, a NASCAR flag draped the casket. The deceased’s helmet sat on top — a tribute to his years as a driver on the small-town racing circuit. Scores of people milled around, some laughed, some cried.

Vince Gill

Overhead speakers pumped in country music. Vince Gill sang, “I know your life on earth was troubled / And only you could know the pain… Go rest high on that mountain / Son, your work on earth is done.”

People took their seats in the pews, and I started the service with a few opening remarks. Then it was the daughter’s turn. “I am so angry. God has a lot of explaining to do. My father was a good man. He had no enemies. He loved his children and grandkids. He worked hard and provided for us. God has a lot of explaining to do.”

This was no time for theological argument

As she spoke, I sat there running through my mind things to say to offer another view of her father’s sudden, unexpected death. I thought about referencing Rabbi Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner believed some things, including some deaths of people we love, just happen at random — a belief I share. But obviously, this was not the time nor place to get in a theological argument.

Then the wisdom of Fr. Seamus O’Reilly came to mind. As he talked to his parishioners about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which some Catholics believed was punishment for sin, the wise priest said:

“God always forgives.
“Humans sometimes forgive.
“Nature never forgives.”

The man had died from a malfunction of his heart. Nature requires that our hearts pump life-giving blood in our veins. This man died of natural causes. “Nature never forgives”? No, that wouldn’t do.

Bless her heart — she was deeply grieving

The daughter’s angry tone did soften partway through her speech. It was clear she was an adoring daughter. She gave a touching and loving tribute to her father, as good a eulogy as I had ever heard from a family member. But she ended where she began, “God has a lot of explaining to do.”

When my turn came, I know I started with, “Death is always a mystery…” and kept it brief. I was speechless after witnessing this woman’s pain. I think everyone else was speechless, too, because few spoke when I opened the floor.

I’m always amazed when those who claim not to be religious will often blame God for tragedy. The funeral could have been a wonderful opportunity to be thankful for the great gift of the time she had with her father. But, bless her heart, she was deeply grieving the loss of her beloved father. I felt so sorry for her that her hurt had turned to anger.

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

Can a POW have a “Good Death” Hundreds of Miles from Home?

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A young soldier named William Gaston Barringer turned 18 on October 5, 1862. Less than three months later, he was wounded and died as a prisoner of war 200 miles from home. Yet, there is evidence he had a good death. How could this be?

Barringer’s marker caught my eye as I wandered around St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi. The epitaph, “I was not afraid to die; my Mother taught me to pray in early life,” got me thinking about what it means to have a good death. (See my “Hank’s Deep Thoughts” video at the monument.)

Let me clarify; a “good death” does not mean that it was good that William died. Death to the young is, of course, a tragedy. And, as a POW, he likely did not die in ideal conditions.

Being a prisoner of war was not mentioned on the monument. I did an internet search and found him on a list of soldiers who died in captivity, hundreds of miles away in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

A “good death” through the centuries

Plagues in the 1300s killed 40-60% of the European population. Such widespread death led to the release of a couple of books known as the Ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”). These were Christian instructions on how to have a good death. There were accompanying woodcuts, like one showing demons tempting the dying man with crowns symbolizing earthly pride.

 

By the American Civil War (1861-65), the dying and their families knew what was expected. Drew Gilpin Faust identified four elements of a good death in her moving book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War. According to Faust, a good death in the 19th century was one where the dying person:

  1. Was conscious
  2. Was not afraid of dying
  3. Was prepared spiritually to meet their maker
  4. Left dying words for the family

 

Even the atheist Charles Darwin, who died in 1882 in England, kept to this script. He told his wife on his deathbed, “I am not the least afraid of death—Remember what a good wife you have been to me—Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me.”

Though a reference to spiritual things was conspicuously absent, Darwin was conscious, was not afraid of dying, and left last words for his family. In my interpretation, he wanted to emphasize that even though he had no spiritual leanings, he was still “not the least afraid of death.”

Much has changed since the Civil War, including our expectations about our deaths. Today, medical literaturedescribes what many now consider a good death: being in control, being comfortable and free of pain, having a sense of closure, etc.

This sense of control has recently manifested itself through eleven U.S. jurisdictions adopting medical aid in dying. In those places, patients can ask a physician to give them medication to hasten their dying.

Back to Mr. Barringer

The words on Barringer’s marker were an assurance to his family that he died a good death: “I was not afraid to die; my Mother taught me to pray in early life.” These seem like the dying words of a conscious man.

And there it is. William was conscious, he was not afraid of dying, he was prepared spiritually (thanks to his mother), and these are the words he left for others. I can imagine his mother visiting this monument often in her grief and being consoled, “At least he had a good death.”

 

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

A Year of Reading on Faith, Doubt, and a Way Forward

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This year, I consumed more than forty books. Their topics ranged from spirituality to science to the Civil War to race to books exploring my Southern roots. I surprised even myself with the number. In the coming weeks, I will share what I read in other fields, but here are a few books I read on spiritual themes:

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (2015) By Rachel Held Evans.

I regret to say that I had not heard of Evans until 2019 with the news of her sudden, unexpected death at age 37. The outpouring of grief and respect by those whose lives she had touched got my attention. We shared common roots in White, evangelical fundamentalism that no longer fit our adult hearts. Here’s a sampling of her journey: “Faith isn’t just meant to be believed, it’s meant to be lived and shared in community.” “Christianity isn’t a kingdom for the worthy—it’s a kingdom for the hungry, the broken, and the imperfect.”

 

Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It (2021) By Brian D. McLaren.

This is a good word for all the doubters out there. A former pastor and author of more than twenty books, McLaren encourages doubt and reframes it as the key to a more mature and fruitful faith.

 

Why Religion? A Personal Story (2018) By Elaine Pagels.

Over a decade ago, I was planning a long road trip and asked my friend, Wayne (who collected the best books on CD), to pick a book for my trip. Wayne handed me The Gnostic Gospels (1979), and I was hooked on Pagels’ insightful writing about early Christianity ever since. I went on to read Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003) and Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (2012). Although written by a historian, these books led me to a deeper faith. In Why Religion? she shares her faith journey following the deaths of her son and husband within a year of each other.

Devotionals

I have been a fan of devotional books for years. It’s easy enough to commit to read a page a day. I have read Merton, Rumi, Rilke, Lewis, Tolstoy, and Melody Beattie. I read these two this year:

Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations (2011) by Matthew Fox.

My friend, Myra Bridgforth, introduced me to this book as we co-led a silent retreat on the topic. Each entry starts with a quote from a giant of Christian mysticism: Dorothy Day, Meister Eckhart, Howard Thurman, Teilhard de Chardin, and many you have never heard of — or, at least, I never heard of them. Then, the mystic for our times, Fox, offers his spin on the quote.

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and The Art of Living (2016) by Ryan Holiday.

This does sound boring, doesn’t it? I started this a couple of years ago and quit after a couple of weeks. I picked it up again in January and, WOW. I will finish it on time for the new year. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and other dead Romans share their wisdom that is just as relevant today.

 

 

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

Pick a Day — Call it “Christmas” — Voilà

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As ironic as it sounds, the celebration of the birth of Jesus could have been any day on the calendar. And get this — Christmas was not that much of a big religious deal for the first 1,200 years of the Christian era. So why December 25? Who settled on a December Christmas?

The Square, Oxford, Mississippi

I got to thinking about this while I was on a nighttime walk on The Square in my hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Like so many small towns in the South, The Square is built around the courthouse. Shops, restaurants, and (because it’s a college town) bars line the streets.

And — since Thanksgiving— lights! Lights on the trees. Lights on the courthouse. Lights on the light poles. Lights in the windows. The sitting William Faulkner statue is under the lights. Who thought of all the lights for Christmas? We don’t light up Easter.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with making Christmas an important feast. Richard Rohr explains:

Around 1200, Francis of Assisi entered the scene.… He believed God loved us from the very beginning and showed this love by becoming incarnate in Jesus.… The Franciscans realized that if God had become flesh and taken on materiality, physicality, and humanity, then the problem of our unworthiness was solved from the very beginning! God “saved” us by becoming one of us!

Holy Scripture does not indicate what time of year Jesus was born. That manger scene could have been in the heat of summer. Early Christians tried April, May, and September, but none stuck. Then we find the record of a nativity celebration in 336 AD in Rome on December 25.

It is no coincidence that it is also the date of the Roman winter solstice. Christians adopted a pagan celebration to be the day we honor as the birth of Christ, which explains all the lights.

Light at dawn in the Newgrange, Ireland, passage tomb, 3000 B.C.E.

The days get longer after the solstice, and there is more and more light. The light grows, and the darkness fades. Ancient peoples made the winter solstice a center of their religion. I visited a passage tomb in Ireland called Newgrange. Five thousand years ago, it was built to allow the dawning sun to shine into the tomb’s chamber on the solstice and the few days before and after.

The Gospel of John does not have a birth story as we find in other gospels. John chose the metaphor of light to describe this event.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

No wonder Christians chose the solstice to be the celebration of the birth of Christ.

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

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