Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Five End Of Life Wishes

An excellent book on this subjuct
As I enter my last quarter of life, here are some of my final wishes:

1. My first is that with whatever life I have left I can still be investing some good time and energy into causes I’m passionate about. I’m not about to retire just because I happen to be a decade past 65.

Fortunately, my health is still pretty good, but I realize I have only so much good time left, so my wish is to be able die used up and somehow “finished” to the greatest extent possible.

Jesus’ own next to last words were, “It is finished,” not so much as an expression of despair as of a life mission accomplished. Then his final words were, "Into your hands I commit my spirit".

I know I’m not Jesus, and I know no human goal is every fully reached, but I want to die feeling like I’ve given it my all, so at the end of my life, like at the end of a day, I can “lay me down to sleep,” content and ready to give my life a rest.

One of the things we may dread most about dying is the fear of never having fully lived, or of not having left any legacy of accomplishments behind. These don’t have to be huge things, just things that have made some kind of difference, that have left some kind of footprint. There’s a rabbinical saying, “All mortals die twice, once when they draw their last breath, and again when people no longer speak their name.”

2. My second wish is to leave a good and enduring legacy to my children and grandchildren. They know, and I know, that there probably won’t be much in the way of an estate or a lot of cash left over for them. So I’m working on a last will and testament of another kind, naming the blessings I want to leave behind for our offspring, the faith and values Alma Jean and wish to  have passed on--so that their children and their children’s children will carry some of the good parts of us forward.

3. A third end of life wish is to make sure that when I become incapacitated and my body is no longer capable of breathing on its own or able to take nourishment, that I’m simply given palliative care to help relieve any excessive amount of suffering. I don't want to be put on a respirator and have tubes forced down my throat or anything else that keeps me from communicating as well and as long as possible with my family and loved ones.

I know I can’t really control all of this totally, and that I could end up incapacitated for a long time through some accident or complicated illness--and maybe I’ll even lose my reasonably sound mind through Alzheimers or worse--in which case I pray my family will still love whatever is left of me to the end.

4. Which relates to my fourth wish. I want to die and be buried without a fancy casket and an expensive vault. My current instructions are to use a simple concrete vault and a welfare casket, the ones they don’t have on display at your local funeral home, but store in a back room somewhere, like the kind my parents were buried in.

If I could really have it my way, I would be fine with a Jewish-style funeral, one of which I attended about a year ago, where they don’t embalm the body, but lay it in in a plain, unvarnished pine casket and bury it without a vault. And while the rabbi reads reflections from Jewish scripture people take turns placing a shovel of dirt directly on the casket, not attempting to shield anyone from the reality of dust to dust, ashes to ashes, earth to earth.

Interestingly, on the same day I attended the Jewish funeral I also attended an Old Order Mennonite one, where a similarly plain wooden casket, made my one of the members of their church, was placed in a wooden vault, also subject to decay. Family members and friends took turns covering the grave while hundreds of congregants sang hymns in beautiful four-part harmony.

Poet Wendell Berry, in a piece he calls “Testament”, writes :

So treat me, even dead,
As a man who has a place
To go, and something to do.
Don't muck up my face
With wax and powder and rouge
As one would prettify
An unalterable fact
To give bitterness the lie.
     Admit the native earth
     My body is and will be,
     Admit its freedom and
     Its changeability.
Dress me in the clothes
I wore in the day's round.
Lay me in a wooden box.
Put the box in the ground.

I could be OK with cremation as well, though some members of my extended family are not, nor am I sure how they would warm up to the idea of "natural burial", where one's body is simply buried in a shroud and covered with earth, a totally natural process in which we welcome becoming one with the earth from which we came.

I love the Irish blessing which says,

May the blessing of earth--the good, rich earth--be with you...
May the earth be soft under you when you rest upon it,
tired at the end of the day.
May earth rest easy over you when at last you lie under it.
May the earth rest so lightly over you
that your spirit may be out from under it quickly,
and up, and off, and on its way to God.

5. Which brings me to my last wish, the “up, and off and on its way to God” part. I live with a deep sense of mystery when it come to things eternal, knowing we can at best only through “see through a glass dimly” when it comes to anything beyond our human senses.

But  there are some seemingly “unbelievable” things I’ll always consider too good not to be true, that some day “what is sown perishable will be raised imperishable; what is sown in dishonor will be raised in glory; what is sown in weakness will be raised in power; what is sown a natural body will be raised a spiritual body.”

This is not just something I hold on to for dear life, it is something that tenaciously holds on to me. And it’s my final wish, as in the African-American spiritual, “I want to die easy when I die, shout salvation as I fly...”

Some more reflections by Wendell Berry:

... do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit's whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure
Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves. Why settle
For some know-it-all's despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle
Hereafter, for all anybody knows?.." 

Or in the words of Job, "I know my redeemer lives." 

I close with some of my personal musings on my recent 75th birthday:

Can an old man continue to see visions and dream dreams
and finally lay himself down to sleep
well content when his time comes
feeling finished and fulfilled
at winter's end and eager to
welcome eternal spring
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