Monday, October 31, 2011

Death Needs More Respect

I enjoy Halloween with its pagan traditions. I even like the idea of an "All Saints Day" that follows even if outside my own religious faith as I like holy people even more. But imagination, magic, ghosts, a scary story or two, even a "Ghostbusters" movie, and especially the trick-or-treating are fun except that I enjoyed it a lot more when I was a little kid and didn't have to keep answering the door bell. What I really don't like about Halloween is the pretend gore, especially that associated with the commercial haunted houses - or horror pics. Or jumping out and scaring people. Oh yeah, and zombies.

I read in some pop psychology-type articles that some people crave the adrenalin rush they get from being scared. Others may have adequate stimulation with regular life. For me, reading a book and taking a nap are plenty of stimulation. I think there is also a psychological aspect to confronting fear and even gory death in a sufficiently fake and safe environment. It's sort of a way to deal with or even hide from the reality of our own potential gore and death.

In real life we do eventually have to face those things. Some think I'm odd because they just don't bother me that much.

I have too much respect for mortal human remains and a strong faith in the literal resurrection of one and all. I’ve been around a lot of dead bodies both before and after the mortician does the work to attempt a semblance of life, or at least the appearance of peaceful rest from life. There were too many funerals to count when I served as bishop. The bishop I followed, not as comfortable with the funeral scene as I was to become, I think had been praying to hold off on some deaths in the ward so I got them all, old, young and in between. I took it very seriously as it was such an obviously intense time for the families and I made sure it was for me so that I could ease as much of their burden as I possibly could including being with them at the hospitals and care centers where their dead were suddenly or finally at rest and the funeral homes where arrangements were made. We had LDS morticians in the area who were able to take care of the dressing of the dead according to our practices. But I did have occasion to handle the bodies as necessary and with the utmost respect and reverence.

Some years earlier as an Elders’ Quorum President in a different ward I had the opportunity to dress a body for burial in ceremonial religious clothes. He was kind of a hefty guy so I asked a couple of other brothers in the quorum to help. I selected one because he was a dental student who had worked on cadavers figuring he would have had experience and not be troubled by it. Surprisingly, he became very uncomfortable turning white as a sheet. He explained later that it was entirely different to handle a body of someone he had actually known. We accomplished the task with quiet seriousness and nobody fainted. It wasn’t easy as the body was oozing a little and had some plastic casing we had to deal with. We also learned some funeral home tricks about slitting the back of a dress shirt to arrange it a little easier. It is all this, the practical aspects to deal with the reality of human remains that taught me the sacred respect.

I also was present for the preparations and service for my twenty-three-year-old nephew who died as the result of a car accident. I was on the phone with my sister often the few days he lingered in the hospital. There had been hope eventually crushed when he was unable to recover from emergency heart surgery. My wife and I arrived at the hospital to join the large family group just in time to go in as each small group visited before the machines were shut down. As we entered the hospital room, I said to my wife, “He’s already gone.” It was so obvious in the clearest of understanding. His physical body was still warm and moved with the ventilator and artificial life.  But it was clear his spirit had moved on. In spite of terrible internal injuries, his face was unmarred, but lifeless. But that was only his physical body.

I don’t know how I will respond yet to the death of my own parents which they say is a real wake-up call to one’s own mortality. I have helped bury grandparents. And I hope to go before my children because what my dear sister had to face, as well as many others who have buried their own children, is one of the hardest challenges of all. And how my heart will break if I am required to be present when my wife leaves her body behind. My Aunt wrote about losing her husband who died in his forties from cancer:

I had witnessed scenes such as this in books and movies. I had actually mentally rehearsed how I would behave. Now I was on stage and as I entered the room where he lay I forgot my lines. There was no script. I stood in the doorway for brief  moment and gazed at the body on the bed where I had left [him] only an hour before. The room had not changed in appearance and still carried the familiar "sick" odor that had become part of our existence; but the thin pale shape in the bed was somehow foreign to me. It was no longer my husband. I felt obligated to touch almost out of curiosity. Yes, the cheek was cool and almost solid to the touch. Something inside of me said, "Now your supposed to bend over and kiss him." I didn't want to. [He] was gone. He wasn't in the bed anymore. Somehow he had left this shell, this covering, and he was somewhere else. The tears still weren't coming and I wondered if I was playing this all wrong. Then I realized that I wasn't the only player. The principal character was not visibly present but was creating an impact nevertheless.
I didn't think of it as relief, but only as peace. I was surely not relieved that my husband was dead, that I was a widow, that my children were fatherless, that for the first time in my life I was the bottom line. But a peace surrounded me that only comes when things are in order, like a job well done. The dishes are washed, the house is clean, you've just put away the last load of  folded laundry, and the children are all in bed. 
I have the strongest faith because of divine witnesses that this life is not the end of us. The Lord lives in his resurrected, physical and glorified body that he revealed to so many including the Prophet Joseph Smith. And because of his sacrifice, resurrection, and atonement all of will stand before him in incorruptible flesh as well. Until that judgment day, our spirits still have work to do to further the salvation of humankind.

It's now all over the web that the last words of Steve Jobs were reported by his sister as "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." 

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