When We Ask the Ultimate Questions
(A Sermon on Death and Dying)

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
March 11, 2001

Listen to the dust in this hand:
Who is trying to speak to us?
-James Oppenheim, “A Handful of Dust”

Years ago, a new science sprang up called “Thantology”. It emerged out of the studies of the psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others. Dr. Ross began her studies with the observation that a dying patient goes through five stages (with sometimes two or more happening simultaneously). Those stages would be 1) Denial and isolation; 2) anger; 3) bargaining; 4) depression and mourning, and; 5) acceptance.

Dr. Kubler-Ross asserted that some patients never work their way through these stages to acceptance. Their progress depends upon their psychological and spiritual/religious outlook - and, of course, the kind of bedside counseling they get from ministers and medical personnel.

This sermon will not be a lecture or critique on the findings of thantology. It will look, rather, at some of the more personal experiences and ideas meant to prompt each of you to make some decisions and observations on your own about the matter of death and dying.

I once performed a service of child dedication for two parents who had been adopted by delighted and loving parents. Not long afterward it became my painful task to try, in some impossible way, to bring sanity into the midst of a Service of Memory for that little child. Bret Matthews had been killed while riding his bike. The driver of a truck was too much in a hurry to slow for a curve and was driving while intoxicated. Bret was seven.

Isn’t it wonderful how we are constantly energized by the beauty and innocence of children? When I voiced the sad news to one elderly gentleman in the congregation he blurted out, “Aw, Jan - children seven years old just ought not to die!”’

But Bret was gone and there was the numbing disbelief in the eyes of his adoring parents. I was to give what stumbling care I could. I wrote a poem which I read at the conclusion of Bret’s service. I’ve done this quite a bit over the years. Eulogies are difficult for me. They seem too dispassionate. But sometimes the Muse speaks to me and I am able to reflect poetically about the person who has died. And so I wrote these words for two parents - Barbara and David - and called it:

Self-evidently I’ve launched us on what some might say is a lugubrious topic. But actually, my friends, the subject for today is one of triumph. Too often we in the western world do all we can to deny the fact of death. This is all the more true as we try to find meaning in the fact of a child’s death.

And yet, as I have said, the topic can be one of affirmation. It speaks of a real understanding of the gift of life for life and death are as one. Death happens to each one of us and in the words of Harpo Marx, “Death is no big deal !”

I was visiting patients in a hospital in Summit, New Jersey. Russelle had asked me to come sit with her one night. I suspect she knew her husband, Tom, was dying. He had been an eminent chemist and had become a real faculty leader and beacon to other Afro-American graduate students who sought to emulate his great mind and gentle manner. Inevitably he passed into coma and beloved Russelle simply didn’t want to spend another night alone. “I think he’ll die tonight,” she said.

I arrived and sat with her. We sat quietly, for several hours. I reached out and took Tom’s hand. I put my palm on his forehead. And I do not know whether he knew it. Then around four in the morning I noticed, ever so imperceptibly, that his breathing had stopped though his eyelids were open. I called the nurse, not awakening Russelle. She came with the resident and he nodded, “Yes, Tom’s gone.” When Russelle awoke we sat there, hands joined and tears flowing, waiting for the orderly to wrap Tom’s body and take him away. The silence between us was a bond.

Tom had died peacefully, full of love from his family and a sense of high accomplishment left in the young research students that had been in his charge. That night spent with Russelle will never leave me.

How many of us in this modern, antiseptic age have had such an experience in our younger years? How many have not? I look back upon that encounter with a sense of real appreciation for being able to view the time of death up close. It was a real learning experience for me. I ask these questions because there has always seemed to be a conspiracy of silence in our society about death.

In the two or three times I accompanied my minister father to funeral homes or grave sites I recall looking with fascination and astonishment at the carefully prepared bodies of the dead. But that was about it. Rarely do I remember having discussions about death while growing up. Once while minister in Houston I dropped in on a Junior-high weekend “lock-in” at the Parish Hall. I am not sure how, but in talking with those kids we came around to the topic of death and dying. For years after that those young people - and their parents, too - commented on how much that conversation meant to them.

Some of the questions young people ask are not unfamiliar.
“Is dying like having a pillow held over your face?”
“What’s it feel like to drown?”
“Do I really live that much longer if I hold my breath every time I pass a cemetery?”
“What happens to the body after it’s buried?”

Mostly, though, the matter of death and dying is a topic that’s shunned.

It was the summer of my 16th year. Mom and Dad had been invited up to Wisconsin to a fishing lodge with some church members. Since I had been asked to do two sermons that summer I was also “on call” in the event that someone died. There was a woman who was comatose in the hospital. It was only a question of time. Dad prepared a memorial service for me and called the mortician to let him know that he would have to coach me on where to stand and what to do if the service were to happen.

And I remember calling long distance to that fishing lodge to get my father on the line. “Dad, that lady died. I have to do the service tomorrow!” My father assured me that all was in readiness, the service written, the undertaker ready to assist me. “I know, Dad, BUT THIS WOMAN’S REALLY DEAD !”

So you see, most of us put the reality of our finitude away. We put those nagging questions on a back burner, so to speak. But those childhood questions become adult questions when we ask “What must it be like to die?” “I hope I am able to handle my death in a way that will be admired. I wonder?”

Volumes have been written on the topic. Memorial societies have sprung up all over the country, many of them administered out of Unitarian Universalist churches. Spiritualism and mysticism are vital topics in today’s rational world. Perhaps two personal stories will bring some insight into finding answers. There have been at least two occasions during which I had an extremely close brush with death. One was in Spain back in 1958. The other was in Illinois as recently as 1996.

I had gone to Spain with five Canadian Rhodes Scholars. We knew we would be able to live there “on the cheap”. They studied for their Roman Civil Law exams. I was there to write my Master’s Thesis. On some afternoons we’d swim, though it being April, the water was usually cold. But there I was in the sunshine, body surfing wave upon wave. Suddenly I found that I was a little further out than usual. I began to swim. But there was a very subtle undertow and for minutes I made no progress. I began to panic and swim the harder. A wave hit me and rolled me over, filling my mouth with salt water. I came up choking and swam again. I waved to my companion on shore. Smiling, he waved back, thinking, I suspect how nice it was that his friend wanted to send greetings. It was then that I became calm. I went into a float. The water moved gently, but I gained my breath. And with timing and intention I caught the crest of a wave and rode over that undertow. I was surely close to drowning but the calmness intervened.

The other occasion was after being brought out of shock with warm blankets and having experienced the pain of what proved to be peritonitis, I remember lying on a Gurney outside the door of the operating room. Above me was a crucifix. And I remember, in my pain and perspiration, how calmly I said to myself, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” The Sister who was my primary care nurse said to me, “You were certainly close to death. But apparently God had something more for you to do.”

Charles Hampton is the author of a book titled The Transition Called Death. In it he states that there are only three ways of dying. The process of dying is actually painless no matter the pain which may have been encountered leading up to the moment of death. Pain, he claims is part of the illness or injury causing death. But pain is not a part of dying. It is part of the act of living. He quotes Maurice Maeterlinck who wrote in 1911 that “Illnesses have nothing in common with that which ends them; they form a part of life, not death.”

Hampton also speaks of what he calls “sudden death” or “syncope”. This is a word that means “cut short”. This type of death is what we encounter in an automobile accident or if hit by lightning or knocked out by some other means. If we’ve ever fainted or been anesthetized we know how it feels to die through syncope. There is no need to fear death through this means.

Another way of dying is through asphyxiation. This happens if we are smothered or drown. The heart stops pumping oxygenated blood to the brain. Drowning is universally proclaimed to be a pleasant sensation, according to those who have experienced it and been revived. There may be terror and struggle at the beginning but the moment the struggle subsides all pain ceases due to the natural anesthetic effect of excessive carbon dioxide in the lungs.

The third method of dying is by the breaking down of some vital organ which gradually extends its death-dealing process through other organs. Pain exists as long as the organs of the body struggle to survive but when the process of dying begins the pain gradually becomes less and finally ceases. Every death, though, is different, no matter the type of death. The main thing to realize is that at the moment of transition and immediately preceding it there is no pain.

Mr. Hampton’s book is substantiated by another study done by Dr. Karl Osis titled Deathbed Observations by Physicians and Nurses. Dr. Osis notes that there is no final pain at the point of death. He also reported there was little fear reported by dying patients in their last hours. In fact there was often a spirit of exaltation expressed. A significant number of patients have experienced hallucinations that a dead friend or perhaps a deceased member of the family is standing by to greet and help the dying patient in transition. I suspect this material is meaningful to many of us. For as Unitarian Universalists, truth is preferable to illusion. We talk about it as a human experience rather than some of the more mythic misrepresentations.

No one really knows what happens after we die. The only rationally defensible position is agnosticism. But the agnostic stance can be highly unsatisfactory to some. We really are unable to live in such an open-ended way with something as pervasive as death. We have to find some sort of affirmation in order to find psychic peace. So the final question I’d like to pose is how we will conduct ourselves when death approaches.

When my friend and colleague, The Rev. John Wells, was dying I remember a statement he made to me. I had journeyed from Houston to Washington, D.C. to be with him and he looked up through his pain and said, “Jan, where’s the dignity?” There he lay, tied to a machine with three bottles of fluid flowing into his system. And I thought how terrible he must have felt. He had dedicated his life in ministry to assisting people in understanding the right of the patient to die with dignity and he was being denied the very same thing. And yet, in the midst of his pain, John tried to put us at ease by resorting to smiles, humor and statements of love and appreciation. So it was in the way he took charge of those moments by telling a story of deToqueville or Senator J.William Fulbright, that made us all admire him so much.

I am sure most of you can say with me that you’ve encountered many courageous people who have lived their Unitarian Universalist principles to the end. When life comes and kicks us in the teeth, we seldom use a “cop-out” such a saying it was “God’s will”.

Last Fall I visited my Dad. I was in Florida with Lorna seeing to the affairs of my dying aunt. I asked Dad if he felt secure in his preparations for dying. He said to me, “You know, Jan, actually I’m sort of excited. This old body is really quite a burden. Each day is a slippery slope for me. But I’ve become curious. I’m looking forward perhaps to finding out some things I’ve only surmised over the years. Yes, I’m o.k.”.

When it comes to dying I think most of us can hold our spirits high because of the manner in which we try to live the principles of a free faith and not lie quavering superstitiously in anticipation of some salvation or not. There’s an old Hassidic story that when the Rabbi lay dying his wife burst into tears. “Why are you crying? He said. “Don’t you know that my whole life was spent in learning HOW to die?”

The last living act we do is our own death. And when it comes I hope I am able to be aware of it as possible - that I’m “with it” right up to the end.

I conclude with some words of the Hindu Mystic philosopher/poet, Rabindranath Tagore:

“Namaste” - that is, the Divine that is in me salutes the Divine that is in you! Amen.