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Let church speak out on death, dying


The century continues to be drenched in death. Increased population and sophisticated technology have facilitated mega death on a brutal scale. Back in the 1950s, there was much talk of collective neurosis in the aftermath of World War II and the atomic annihilations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People, it was said, had lost hope in the future. Living on the edge of the abyss, many gave themselves to short-term goals or hedonistic distractions.

While the threat of nuclear omnicide may have receded, we have recently witnessed genocide in the former Yugoslavia and in parts of Africa. We are over-familiarized with death on a massive scale, which yet we keep at a distance even as it deepens and intensifies the anxiety all persons experience concerning their own deaths, especially in times of grave illness.

The portrayal of death for entertainment, especially in movies and television, shows it in false and often glamorized perspectives that blunt the brutality of murder and violence.

In such a context it is not surprising that physician-assisted suicide is currently a major preoccupation. Its legalization is under consideration by the Supreme Court. People are crying out for assistance in coming to terms with death and especially with dying.

The Vatican and many bishops' conferences and individual bishops have updated traditional teaching on the treatment of persons who are terminally ill but whose dying could be prolonged by various technologies. There is no need to rehearse this teaching, although one regrets some statements (such as the Pennsylvania Bishops' Conference and the Maryland Catholic Conference) that require artificial food and hydration for terminally ill patients and those in a persistently vegetative state up to the point of death. While each case should be judged individually, and with allowance for responsible decisions by patients and their families, it seems preferable to discontinue artificial feeding and hydration when the dying process has irrevocably taken over.

All agree that no one should be caused to suffer unnecessarily and that pain management may require dosages that indirectly hasten death in a way that is foreseen but not directly intended.

Aside from the moral reflections referred to, the Catholic church has superbly rich resources, sacramental, pastoral and liturgical, for dealing with sickness, dying, death and burial. Perhaps, at this time of anxiety and questioning, there is need to articulate this teaching in a way that speaks to contemporary needs and apprehensions. But this should, I believe, be done in living dialogue with the whole people of God and not just in issuing further pastoral statements, valuable as these are.

Would it not be extremely helpful for the bishops to issue a draft statement on the mystery of death in all its dimensions and complexities and then hold hearings on that draft in each diocese. Part of the effort could be to hear the concerns of the people: What are their fears concerning death, pain, isolation, health care costs and fear of death itself? They could also evaluate and perhaps strengthen existing support programs.

There are economic aspects that make death a different reality for rich and poor, and account should be taken of this even at the risk of incurring the wrath of the funeral industry. All persons, rich or poor, should be encouraged to favor dignified but inexpensive caskets (rain forests are plundered for mahogany, much of which is for super-expensive caskets). People should be told about the option of cremation and told to favor donations to medical research or charitable causes over sending Mass cards. Each Mass is offered for all the living and all the dead.

Expensive funerals, with acres of flowers and limousines with liveried chauffeurs, are not necessary for a dignified funeral. They are more likely related to denial of the reality of death.

Holding hearings in each diocese would provide an opportunity for African-Americans, Latin Americans, Native Americans and other ethnic groups to express their cultural traditions concerning death rather than being forced as they now are to accept what is expensive and often geared toward falsity and unseemly profit-making. Would it be feasible for parishes to set aside a hall where groups could celebrate funeral rites with dignity and simplicity and in accordance with families' needs?

Hearings would help to familiarize people with honest discussion of death and dying. Despite death being so prevalent in our cities and communities, many people have little firsthand experience of it and this lack feeds anxiety. What is needed is more familiarity with the actual dying of relatives, friends and family members. Medical facilities could assist here by notifying every family when the death process sets in so that relatives and friends could be present around the deathbed as was usually the case when death took place at home.

In this way, many would realize that the final stages of dying are peaceful and calm and exaggerated fear of death would be lessened. In this area there is scarcely any substitute for the actual experience of the death of a friend or relative.

Lent would be a suitable time to hold hearings or dialogue homilies on death and dying so that people could be actively involved in unfolding the richness of the church's tradition and could contemplate issues like aftercare of the bereaved and others that I have not mentioned or perhaps even imagined.

Fr. Paul Surlis is associate professor of social ethics at St. John's University, Jamaica, New York.

National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996