When I moved to the United States many years ago, I encountered a cultural context that – although I spoke the language fluently – was at some points as alien to me as my official “resident alien” status declared me to be. Especially puzzling was the way Americans seemed to engage death, with heads firmly in the sand. I still remember attending a lecture by a famous American ethicist who asked his audience how they wished to die. The answers confirmed what he had expected to hear: “quickly,” “without pain,” “in my sleep,” etc. My own answer made the speaker exclaim that I was “medieval.” I said that I wished to die “knowingly.”
I often think about that scene when I enter my office at Yale Divinity School these days. To my left sits a simple wooden bookshelf: it has the shape of a coffin and is fit to my body’s particular measurements. When I die, the individual shelves will come out and I will be buried in this coffin in a plain shroud.
The idea for this shelf-coffin originated in a course I was co-teaching at YDS with my colleague Markus Rathey, titled “In the Face of Death: Worship, Music, Art.” As part of my research, I read about green burial practices – new ways of making funerals ecologically responsible, for example by foregoing toxic embalming chemicals and elaborate coffins. When you consider that cemeteries in the U.S. use 90,000 tons of steel and 1.6 million tons of concrete every year, simpler funeral practices are an important part of creation care.
What also captured my attention was having a simple wooden coffin built that could be used as a bookshelf while one was still alive. Since I needed an additional shelf in my office anyway, I had a shelf-casket built.
Visitors to my office wonder: what is it like to work with your own coffin in plain view? It’s not as troubling or strange as it might sound. It serves as a workaday reminder of a path I choose to be on: I seek to face my own finitude, not as a task for the last few moments of life, but as a lifelong challenge.
The culture we inhabit labors to avoid intimate reflection on death, most especially one’s own. As avid consumers of all things material, we are supposed to have infinite appetites and an infinite capacity to satisfy these appetites. The burgeoning cultural and commercial interest in the “silver” or “golden” years rarely focuses on the existential limit of these years. More surprising than the cultural evasion of dying, however, is the scarcity of contemporary spiritual practices to help us confront our own end. The task of course is a daunting one.
Reflecting upon death can be construed as morbid, a condition needing medical attention (recurring thoughts of death are one of the symptoms of depression), or as an invitation for the thanatologically sensitive expert to advise us on how to “have a nice death.”1 Either way, the avoidance of our own dying is doomed to fail in each and every case. What can be odder than ignoring such a large-scale failure?
There is an additional personal reason for facing finitude: the engagement with mortality is gendered. Statistically, women have more time between “now” and the “hour of our death” than men, since we outlive men, at least in the so-called First World (the 2010 U.S. Census reported 22.9 million women who were 65 or older, compared to 17.3 million men). Contemplating death is something women typically have more time to do than men.
Historically, the church has been a place where people learned and practiced together “the art of dying.” For many centuries, preparing for death was an accepted part of the spiritual life. It was something one learned early on and taught to children and grandchildren. I seek to befriend this tradition of deliberately facing the hour of my death, not only with my shelf-coffin in my office, but with other spiritual practices.
Facing the Scriptures
The Scriptures are a good place to begin. They are no strangers to facing finitude. The psalmist prays: “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” (Ps 39:4) For the psalmist, acknowledging mortality engenders not a morbid fascination with death but wisdom for the living of our days: “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Ps 90:12) The Scriptures also include whole prayers for facing death. Innumerable Christians have died with the words of Psalm 23 on their lips, comforted by the vision of God as a good shepherd even in the valley of the shadow of death. In Psalm 71, the psalmist envisions aging and dying as a continuation of God’s caring presence since birth. A contemporary meditation, written by a middle-aged woman who looks back to her own birth and ahead towards her own death, renders Psalm 71 thus:
you have been my vision and hope
since the very beginning of my life.
In my mother’s womb, you were with me.
You were the midwife who eased me into this world,
You the giver of the gift of life.
You let me flourish, bloom, and ripen.
My praise rises towards you continually
like whiffs of perfume from my body.
In you I trust all the days of my life
my refuge, my shelter, my home.
Now, in the middle of my life,
I look both back and to the future.
Do not forsake me as I grow old,
as my strength begins to lessen.
Those who always envied me your gifts of energy
will laugh at me:
You are beginning to look really old!
And they will think:
She is fair game now,
no divine power can save her from old age.
God, shield me
from those who consider me senile and useless.
Let them see your strength and power
even in my frailty and weakness.
Confound those who idolize youth
with your love for both young and old.
Confuse them with your own repeated trust
in old women,
women like Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth,
whom you called to give birth to hope
even in old age.
Since my youth you have taught me
to discern your wisdom and presence in all things
and to walk in your strength.
Do not leave me
as I turn old and gray,
as my body begins to show signs of
weakness and frailty.
Let women friends be at my side
who want to age with me,
who want to become old and wise,
old and young at heart,
old and rich in lived life.
And at the very end of my life
be midwife for me once more.
Ease me out of this world
back into your own body, your own world.
Until that precious hour
my mouth will speak of your justice and power
every day of my life.
I will glorify your faithfulness with my lute.
I will gladly sing your praise with full lungs,
God of my youth and of my old age.
To my children and my children’s children
I will speak of your amazing power
which you pour out on all ages.2
Facing the Light
The wisdom of the Scriptures meets us not only in texts. We find it also in the biblical stories that have been taken up in worship and popular devotions. A case in point is Luke 2:22-38, the story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple and the encounter with Simeon and Anna. This encounter between God’s own new life and two elderly people gave rise to a particular devotional practice in the medieval church. On Feb. 2, candles were (and in many places still are) blessed in memory of Simeon and Anna seeing the light. The traditional name for the feast is a witness to this custom: “Candlemas.” A link was made between this celebration of Candlemas and the hours of death. The devout would keep at home some of the candles blessed on Feb. 2 to light when someone was dying. It is interesting that in our own times, although a bewildering variety of retail candles is available “for all occasions,” dying does not seem to be one of them. We are advised to have ready emergency telephone numbers for medical personnel, living wills, and directives for private bank accounts, but what about religious symbols for the hour of death?
Facing the Music
Using more than words, visual arts and music can offer special solace in the face of fragility and impermanence. The chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach that focus on dying and death are a striking example. The well-known passion hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” from his St. Matthew Passion begins with a meditation on Jesus’ dying agony, and ends with a prayer for one’s own death: “My Savior, be Thou near me when death is at my door; then let Thy presence cheer me, forsake me nevermore.” Even if that particular verse of the hymn is rarely included in contemporary hymn books, we can still commit it to our heart, and sing and pray it in preparation for that moment when “death is at my door.”
Facing a Cloud of Witnesses
Each of us confronts our own particular death, yet none of us is alone with this challenge. The Christian tradition offers companions for this journey – for instance, the saints and all those who lived and died in exemplary ways. My own Roman Catholic tradition knows saints who offer a “good death,” among them St. Birgitta of Sweden and St. Barbara. The latter especially is traditionally invoked against a “sudden death,” a death that finds the person unprepared. These saints are not in great demand today, I am afraid, particularly those invoked against a sudden death. Most people seem to want precisely this kind of death: quick, painless, and, if possible, while asleep, so not to have to face one’s own dying.
Yet I think we need these sainted exemplars more than ever. They can enable us to reconceive our dying as something we need never do entirely by ourselves. In a culture where most of us will die alone, in hospitals or nursing homes, we may welcome saints who accompany us when few others will. In the traditional prayers over a deceased person, it is precisely the “saints of God” who are asked to draw near (subvenite, sancti Dei), and the angels who are bidden to meet and accompany the departed to paradise. Indeed, these saints could become companions not only at the fateful moment of death but throughout life.
Other companions for this open-eyed journey are those from among our own family and friends who have died. We do well to remember these dearly departed and to offer them continuing hospitality in our midst. Such hospitality can take many forms. Why not, on the anniversary of a death, place a photo of that family member on the kitchen table and light a candle? Children especially grasp these simple symbols instinctively, and the photo and lit candle can prompt stories about the one who has died but who continues to be a part of the family.
The familial dead are not our only companions. Our closest partners in this journey may well be our living friends and relatives. As we age together, we face our mortality together. Some will carry the marks of a terminal illness. There are elders who not only are close to their own death but have accompanied others on that road and have wisdom to share. Our children will ask us out of the blue when we will die, and where we want to be buried. Accepting our own body as it ages means befriending yet another companion on the journey to the hour of our death: whether it is our wrinkles, our graying hair, or the body’s changing rhythms, we do embody our own finite state. Why not befriend more willingly this finite body?
Facing the Source of All Life
Whatever the stage of life, confronting death is best done while engaging the larger calling, the attentive, faithful living of life. My faith invites me to face my end as part of the adventure of facing the ultimate source of all life: Godself. I live into my own dying most deeply by each day drawing closer to this source of all life, God. A person of faith who every day prays the ancient commendation of the soul –“Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Ps 31:5) –might not need to do much more in the hour of her death. Some years ago, I tried to give expression to this larger whole in which my living and dying are held together. I wrote this prayer that, along with my office shelf-coffin, continues to help me face my finitude:
Originally from Germany, Teresa Berger is professor of liturgical studies at YDS. She holds doctorates in liturgical studies and constructive theology. Her most recent book is Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History (Ashgate, 2011). An active Roman Catholic, Berger has produced (with MysticWaters Media) a CD-ROM, Ocean Psalms: Meditations, Stories, Prayers, Songs and Blessings from the Sea (2008). She also contributes to the liturgy blog Pray Tell (praytellblog.com).
1 I owe this description to Marshall Kapp, who is quoted in the moving article by Mary Lee Freeman, “Caring for the Dying: My Patients, My Work, My Faith,” Commonweal (Jan. 30, 2004), pp. 11–15, here p. 14.
2 Angela Berlis, Psalm 71. English translation by Teresa Berger. Copyright © 2004. Used by permission.