Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘death’

bench by SW

I was sitting on a bench in Battersea Park yesterday, opposite the lake. Two benches down, a woman took out a bottle of Brasso and a rag, and started polishing the brass plaque on the top of the back rest.

There must be thousands of these in the parks of London, but I hardly ever stop to notice them.

I got chatting to her. (The English ‘rule’ of not talking to strangers didn’t apply in this case because (i) we were in a park, (ii) she had a dog and (iii) she was doing something out of the ordinary!) She doesn’t polish every memorial plaque in the park. This one – the image above – is dedicated to a neighbour she knew very well. The neighbour’s relatives don’t live nearby, so she takes it upon herself to polish the plaque.

What a beautiful image of devotion to the memory of someone, like leaving flowers at a grave. I know that as Christians part of our remembering is praying for the repose of their souls. But in the wider secular context, these simple memorials and gestures are a simple way of connecting with the past and remembering those who have gone before us.

Read Full Post »

Interesting to read this short piece by Jenny McCartney about the way we try to hide from the reality of death in our Western culture. She doesn’t give any real spiritual perspective, and she doesn’t speculate about how this lack of a spiritual perspective might be the very cause of the problem she highlights – but her comments about how death has almost become taboo are worth reflecting on.

It is the fashion, in modern times, to emphasise the need for tastefulness in talking of death, of a certain concealing decorum. We used to be like this about sex, but that’s gone now: the media is saturated with sexual imagery and advice, and everywhere you turn, public figures are kissing each other lasciviously on the lips – particularly if they are glamorous women – and telling you more about their bedroom antics than anyone ever asked to know.

The taboo has simply shifted, however. As the door to the bedroom has been thrown open, access to the deathbed has been barred. No one seems to linger long there, conversationally or otherwise: too often, a death is treated like an embarrassing fact, a regrettable failure of life that is best hushed up.

We are built to cling to life, unless that instinct is withered in us through long suffering, extreme altruism or despair, and so when we read about the deaths of other people, we are moved partly because we start imagining our own: the pain of leaving the people we love, and their confusion at our departure. Or we think of the helplessness of watching someone we love slipping beyond our reach. The notion of death is so mysterious and enormous that, in many cases, it seems easier just to lock it away, although it has a way of escaping and sneaking up on our peripheral vision.

The rapid expansion of the “anti-ageing” industry in the West peddles an airbrushed vision of a world in which ageing or mortality can be almost indefinitely deferred by the dutiful ingestion of supplements and restless application of pseudo-scientific skin treatments. What it can’t offer, of course, is any guaranteed change to the final outcome.

Still, the option of pretending to ignore death (for a period of our lives, at least) has not been available to the bulk of humanity throughout history. In the 15th century, when the Ars moriendi, or “Art of Dying”, was written, the book desperately sought to popularise the concept of a “good death”, partly because – in the aftermath of the Black Death – an early demise was so frequent and lurid that some kind of etiquette guide was required. Both real-life accounts and novels were later preoccupied with the deathbed scene, which was, in many ways, the dramatic high point of a person’s life. It was their moment in which to forgive, regret, recant or curse, the final deal, the instant at which they revealed their essential self, and onlookers were unashamedly interested in it.

I can never think of the deaths of those I knew and loved, even those who were very old, without some small recurrent aftershock, some fresh sense of the overwhelming strangeness of their disappearance. The ritual of mourning and the ceremony of the funeral or memorial provides shapes for grief to stumble into, yet even those are designed primarily to comfort the living. What our society presently lacks – save for a few enlightened homes and hospices – is much structured means of comforting the dying, who are too often abandoned in hospital wards surprised by fear and pain.

Read Full Post »

the end is near By Pedro Moura Pinheiro Pedro Moura Pinheiro

I was a guest blogger at the Tablet this week, writing about New Year’s resolutions:

I spent the last three days of the year helping on a retreat for young people in south London. On New Year’s Eve we had a discussion session, and I put this question to them: If you knew the world was going to end in exactly one hour, what would you do with the time? I was thinking, of course, about the Mayan non-apocalypse of 21 December 2012, when the world was meant to end but didn’t.

I was also remembering a provocative Canadian film from 1998 called Last Night. Here, the coming apocalypse is scheduled for midnight. The film doesn’t explain what form this will take, so instead of this being a disaster movie it’s a psychological study of what people choose to do with their last few hours.

Most people are partying in the streets; a dysfunctional family tries to celebrate a non-dysfunctional Christmas dinner, which of course goes wrong; two lovers form a suicide pact in an attempt to show that their lives will not be taken from them; a young woman who has never known love knocks on the door of a stranger. There is not much faith and not much hope.

What did the young people on retreat choose to do with their last hour? I prodded them a bit, not to give a particular answer, but to think about the question in a particular way. First, to reflect on this in the light of faith: it’s not just about the end of this world, but the beginning of another. How does that affect your answer? Second, it’s not just your own personal end, it’s the knowledge that everyone else is going to meet their own end as well.

What did they say? Well, you can go and read the whole post. But I ought to copy the final paragraph about what this rambling reflection has got to do with New Year’s resolutions:

Here is my advice: think about what you would do, in the light of faith, if you and everyone else only had one hour left. And then resolve to do that soon, or at least in the next year …

Read Full Post »

I’ve always liked Ron Mueck’s hyper-realist sculptures – his gigantic ‘Boy’ was the best thing in the whole Millennium Dome. His latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth consists of just four pieces, but I spent a good hour entranced by just two of them, ‘Woman with Sticks’ and ‘Drift’, which form a kind of diptych. Taken together they offer a profound meditation on what it means to be human.

In the first, a naked middle-aged woman grapples with a bundle of sticks twice her size. She’s weary, but strong. Her body is marked with the scratches of the struggle. Her face glances to the side, betraying her exhaustion, but also a defiant joy, an impish delight at having achieved, finally, the unreasonable task set before her. The curve of her body, arching back against the weight of the load, meets the line of the branches, the woman almost merging with creation, and in geometric terms creating a glorious organic tangent – you know how much I like tangents!

What is this task? We don’t know. The exhibition notes talk about the woman tackling ‘the near impossible tasks set in fairytales and legends’. For me, she seems to represent the human person struggling with the self, with creation, with existence itself. Her back is bent almost to breaking point, but she is still standing – and that’s the defiant point. She is Atlas carrying the world. She’s the ordinary person, and the Olympic warrior. And if the sticks represent a more specific symbolic task, like in a fairytale, I was imagining her collecting them to provide thatch for her roof, or kindling for a mighty conflagration. In other words, she could have been building a home or lighting a beacon or setting the whole world aflame; she could have been embracing either life, or death. And going further, perhaps because this came up in our retreat last month, she was also Abraham and Isaac taking the wood up the mountain for the sacrifice, unsure about where they would discover the sacrificial offering.

The second piece, ‘Drift’, is described in the exhibition notes as “a small-scale sculpture of a lightly tanned man sporting tropical swim shorts and dark sunglasses, lying on a lilo with his arms outstretched. Instead of floating in a swimming pool, ‘Drift’ is installed high on the gallery wall, seeming to disappear off into the distance. Held up only by a puff of air and a sheet of plastic, the precariousness of ‘Drift’ provokes questions of the brevity of life.”

It’s a middle-aged Jack Nicholson, with the same Nicholson smugness and self-satisfaction. He is completely indifferent to the world, almost comatose with leisure. Or he is just a loving and hard-working man at the end of a busy year getting his well deserved rest, freed from the cares and responsibilities of the world. I’m not sure. There is an air of disengagement, even of anomie, reinforced by the title. And remember that this three-quarter size figure ‘lying’ on the lilo is placed vertically on a huge wall of turquoise. You confront this sculpture as a secular crucifix – he is there, high above you, in a cruciform figure. He is crucified by his own inertia and indifference, by the nothingness of his surroundings, by isolation and meaninglessness.

She is alive – gloriously alive – in her mythical battle to the edge of death. He is dead – existentially dead – in his holiday coma. She is taking her prey home in a clumsy march of triumph, staggering under the weight of her struggle. He is drifting up to the ceiling, into nowhere, weightless, without direction or purpose. What a beautiful meditation on what it is to be human, on the poles that we drift between over a lifetime, and sometimes within a single day. I could have stayed there for hours, and I am determined to go back before it closes. How heartbreaking that these pieces are for sale, and they may well end up in private hands, never to be seen again!

I don’t think Rachel Campbell-Johnston was fair in her Times review to say that Mueck’s sculptures, for all their phenomenal detail, have no soul, and that the spectator gets stuck on the surface. I can’t explain why, but my response to his work has always been very different – to ‘Boy’, to the wonderful National Gallery exhibition when he was artist in residence there, and to one or two other pieces I have seen over the years. I find myself drawn into the mystery of these oversized or undersized human beings. The detail doesn’t become a distraction for me, it’s more like a doorway. The figures are so lifelike that you almost feel you are in conversation with them. There is a presence about them, and an inner stillness, that is unlike any other representation in art that I can think of.

In fact the memory they bring back is of the Tilda Swinton exhibition in Rome in the late 1990s, when I was at seminary there. I missed the original sleeping beauty performance in the Serpentine in London, but in Rome she lay asleep in a glass exhibition case for a few mornings. Yes, it was voyeuristic – by definition. But it brought the same sense of presence to another person, in their sleep and hiddenness, that Mueck’s sculptures bring. The size helps as well. I prefer the three-quarter size figures, because there is a distancing – as if you are looking at yourself from the corner of the room – without any significant diminishment.

You can see that I am a fan. I wish there were more of Mueck’s work to see publically. I wish these two sculptures could be bought for a British gallery somehow, and put on permanent display. I’d love to buy them for a church, or maybe a church foyer; but I’m not in a church at the moment, and I don’t have the money! The exhibition is on only until 26 May. Details here. It’s easy to get to, at 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET, not far from Oxford Circus or Piccadilly tube stations.

There are two other sculptures. ‘Youth’ is magnificent, but I’d need another visit to give it time, and another post to write about it. ‘Still Life’ (a giant dead chicken) I don’t much care for – it loses the human, obviously! Despite all the metaphors and meanings, it doesn’t draw me into the soul of the person as the others do. Three out of four isn’t bad.

Read Full Post »

There are different kinds of near-death experiences. There are ‘end of life’ experiences, when people at their death-bed report being drawn towards a certain kind of light, or sent back into the world of the living, or seeing their own bodies lying there from an out-of-body perspective. I’ve never gone through one of these.

There are ‘near miss’ experiences when something happens that could have been catastrophic, but wasn’t. I can think of twice when I have driven at a reasonable speed straight through a red light and only realised when it was too late. Once was years ago at a major crossroads in St Albans – I don’t know why it happened; I must have just been distracted. I could have killed myself and many others with me. I was terrified afterwards with a kind of retrospective shock; the full force of ‘what if?’

The second time was only a few weeks ago when I went through a red light at a pedestrian crossing here in Chelsea. It wasn’t my fault. I saw it as I was going through it, and I couldn’t work out why I hadn’t spotted it before. I was so perturbed that I drove back, to discover that one of those beautiful hanging flower baskets had been hung by the council on a lamp-post just a couple of feet before the light. I guess when it was hung it had no flowers, but they had since grown and completely obscured the red traffic light. It was genuine concern that drove me, like a good citizen, to call the police, and the local council, and whoever else the next person referred me to. But no-one could deal with it before Monday morning (this was Friday night) or felt that it was urgent enough to find a way of sorting it out. I gave up. I should have gone and cut the flowers myself; but then I’d have probably got arrested.

Anyway, the third kind of near-death experience is the much more everyday ‘intimation of one’s own mortality’ that catches us now and then, often for small and unexpected reasons. I had one of these last week. There was a Mass at Westminster Cathedral offered for the deceased clergy of the Diocese. As I processed in with the other concelebrants, we walked past the Book of Remembrance that was open on the relevant day: a single page for each day of the year, with the names of the clergy beautifully inscribed on the page for the day of their death. And it struck me with great force as I walked past: my name will be in there one day. Probably in quite a few years; but possibly in just a few months or weeks or days (who knows?). But however long it takes, there my name will be – in that very book.

I know this isn’t an unusual experience. It was just very concrete. Every so often I think about death; but I don’t usually have such a simple reminder of how thin the line is between now and then – just a few moments away; just a few letters on the page.

I know these everyday reminders of death are more common in rural communities (or at least slightly less urban ones), where you as an individual have a particular link with a particular graveyard. I’m not saying that you meditate on it every day; but it must be similarly sobering just to think, ‘This is the place where my body will lie one day'; that death is not just an abstract idea but a concrete destiny.

It reminds me of a village I visited just outside Salzburg. I’m used to seeing old village churches in England with the graveyard at the side of the church somewhere. But here the parish church was literally surrounded by the graves of the parishioners. There was a row directly around the external wall of the church; then a path around this row; and then more graves extending out to the boundary wall. So as soon as you walked into the grounds of the church you walked past the graves of your parents, your ancestors, your fellow parishioners, the townsfolk; and you knew that you would lie there one day. My friend said this was typical in small Austrian villages. It wasn’t at all oppressive; it was as if the church itself (and everything that happened within its walls) was living within this larger communion; as if you congregated with your neighbours and friends and family to pray each Sunday, and this congregating just continued after death.

There aren’t many Catholic churches with graveyards at their side in Britain today. The nearby parish in Fulham is probably one of the few. I wish we had a few more, and that we were more connected in these concrete ways with those who have gone before us.

Read Full Post »

I was really disturbed by some of the reactions to the recent report into the 2009 Air France crash, which suggested that it would be far better for someone if they had no warning at all about their impending death.

You probably remember hearing about the tragedy: all 228 people aboard were killed when an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic in June 2009. A preliminary report has been written two years after on the basis of information from the aircraft’s black boxes, which were only recovered last month. There is no clear conclusion about what caused the crash – it was partly to do with faulty instrumental readings. The fall took three and a half minutes.

This is the bit that disturbed me, as reported by Elaine Ganley and Jill Lawless:

Some families of victims who said they were given information in a meeting with the agency said it was possible their loved ones went to their deaths unaware of what was happening because there was apparently no contact between the cockpit and cabin crew in the 3 1 / minutes.

“It seems they did not feel more movements and turbulence than you generally feel in storms,” said Jean-Baptiste Audousset, president of a victims’ solidarity association. “So, we think that until impact they did not realize the situation, which for the family is what they want to hear — they did not suffer.”

It’s true that they may not have had to live through the horror of knowing they were falling to their deaths; and I do understand how a relative can find some consolation in knowing this. But surely there are other considerations involved here as well? It must be frightening to know that you are about to die, and I have sat with many people as they face this knowledge and try to come to terms with it – but would you really prefer not to know?

I’m not just writing as a Christian believer now. Yes, as a person of faith, I would rather have a few minutes to pray, to thank God for my life, to say sorry for anything I have done wrong, to offer my life to the Lord, and generally to prepare for my death. But even if I had no faith in God or in a life after death, my impending death would still be a hugely significant horizon, and those last few minutes of life would surely take on an unimaginable significance. I wouldn’t wish for myself that I were left in ignorance. I’d want to know, in order to try to make sense of it, or simply to make the most of it, or at least not to waste it. And I wouldn’t wish for my loved ones to be denied the possibility of knowing that their end was near.

I’m not romanticising death. I’m certainly not pretending that the fear isn’t very real, especially if the knowledge comes quickly and unexpectedly. I’d just rather know. Fear, sometimes, is what helps us to appreciate the significance of some great truth that lies before us; and there aren’t many truths as significant as death.

A film that played with these themes very creatively was Last Night from 1998 (not the new film with Keira Knightley).

Everyone knows that the world is going to end this evening at midnight, and we see how various characters in Toronto react. Their decisions about how to spend the last few hours of their life generally reflect the concerns and priorities of the life they have already lived, the life they have made. Their fundamental intentions are clarified and crystalised in these last moments.

On the other hand, knowing that time is so short, it gives them a chance to make something different of their life. Not so much a moral conversion (although that is also possible), but a reorientation, a new level of authenticity, a sort of redemption – even if the choices some of them made were thoroughly depressing. It’s well worth seeing.

Read Full Post »

Forgive the crude title, but this is the question I was discussing with a group of healthcare professionals recently. The specific topic was ‘brain death’, which is a phrase so widely used today that it hardly ever gets questioned. If someone’s brain is ‘dead’ then surely the person is dead as well? If the human brain has ceased to function then surely the human being has ceased to be alive? Not necessarily.

Much of the controversy is about organ transplantation. If you are going to take someone’s heart and give it to another person, you have to be sure that they are dead before you remove the heart, otherwise the act of removing the heart will be the very cause of their death. At least, that’s what most ethicists would say. The surgeon wants to know that he or she is taking a heart from a corpse and not killing a person. For many years, it has been assumed that if someone is certified ‘brain dead’ then they are definitely dead, and the transplant can go ahead. But this is being questioned more and more.

E. Christian Brugger, Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation, gives some background:

For purposes of organ removal, there are two commonly accepted sets of criteria for determining that death has occurred: the “cardio-respiratory” standard and the “neurological” standard (sometime referred to as the “whole brain death” criterion). The Uniform Determination of Death Act formulated in 1981 by the President’s Commission and widely adopted throughout the U.S. defines the first as the “irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions”, and the second as “the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.” Although each criterion focuses upon a limited set of critical functions, the state of death of the entire human organism is thought to be able to be inferred by focusing on any one of them.

In his 2000 address, John Paul II says that when “rigorously applied” the neurological criterion “does not seem to conflict with the essential elements of a sound anthropology.” He goes on to say “therefore a health-worker professionally responsible for ascertaining death can use these criteria [i.e., cardio-respiratory and neurological] in each individual case as the basis for arriving at that degree of assurance in ethical judgment which moral teaching describes as ‘moral certainty'” (No. 5).

In other words, the pope states that the neurological criterion seems to be a reliable basis for arriving at moral certitude that a person has died, which is required before harvesting vital organs can be legitimate.

But new questions have come up in the last few years.

Research has emerged in the past decade, especially by D. Alan Shewmon, professor of pediatric neurology at UCLA Medical Center and Consultant for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, challenging the reliability of the widely accepted neurological standard.

Recall the pope says that death consists in the “disintegration of that unity and integrated whole that is the personal self” (no. 4), and that we can identify biological signs that follow upon the disintegration. It seems to follow that an apparent absence of certain biological signs of somatic (bodily) disintegration can raise reasonable doubts as to whether death has occurred.

Shewmon’s research demonstrates conclusively that the bodies of some who are rightly diagnosed as suffering whole brain death express integrative bodily unity to a fairly high degree.

Brain dead bodies cannot breathe on their own since the involuntary breathing response is mediated by the brain stem, which has suffered complete destruction. So the bodies need to be sustained on a mechanical ventilator, which supports the body’s inspiration and expiration functions (breathing in and out). But with ventilator support, the bodies of brain dead patients have been shown to undergo respiration at the cellular level (involving the exchange of O2 and C02); assimilate nutrients (involving the coordinated activity of the digestive and circulatory systems); fight infection and foreign bodies (involving the coordinated interaction of the immune system, lymphatic system, bone marrow and microvasculature); maintain homeostasis (involving a countless number of chemicals, enzymes and macromolecules); eliminate, detoxify and recycle cell waste throughout the body; maintain body temperature; grow proportionately; heal wounds (i.e., the immunological defense of self against non-self); exhibit cardiovascular and hormonal stress responses to noxious stimuli such as incisions; gestate a fetus (including the gaining of weight, redistribution of blood flow favoring the uterus, and immunologic tolerance toward the fetus); and even undergo puberty.

The data is indisputable. Yet there is considerable disagreement on how to interpret the data with respect to the question of human death. Some scholars such as James M. DuBois, writing in the 2009 “Catholic Health Care Ethics” manual published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, refer to this long list of functions of brain dead bodies as “residual biological activities” no more expressive of life than the twitching of a lizard’s amputated tail. Others, including scientists and several philosophers and theologians who, with me, accept magisterial teaching, are less comfortable setting them aside as possible signs of true somatic integration.

Although Shewmon’s evidence certainly does not establish that brain dead bodies are the bodies of living (albeit highly disabled) persons, in my judgment, and in that of other competent scholars and scientists, it raises a reasonable doubt that excludes “moral certitude” that ventilator-sustained brain dead bodies are corpses.

It’s not an argument to say that a brain dead person is necessarily still alive – it simply suggests that there are serious doubts and questions about the meaning of brain death. And as long as such questions remain, we shouldn’t pretend that we have absolute confidence that a brain dead person is definitely dead. And if that’s the case, then there are implications for how we continue to care for such persons, and whether or not we transplant their organs.

If you want to follow this up, see this article on the Signs of Life conference on brain death in 2009; Pope Benedict’s 2008 address to a conference about organ transplantation; a Linacre Centre paper that touches on brain death, and another about the definition of death; and the NHS page about brain death, which includes the following uncritical remarks:

Brain death occurs when a person in an intensive care unit no longer has any activity in their brain stem, even though a ventilator is keeping their heart beating and oxygen circulating through their blood.

Once a brain stem death has occurred, the person is confirmed dead.

Unfortunately, there is no chance of a person recovering once their brain stem has died. This is because all of the core functions of the body have stopped working and can never be restarted. Although a ventilator can keep the heart beating, the person is effectively dead.

If permission has been given, organs can be removed for transplant and ventilation is withdrawn. Once ventilation is withdrawn, the heart stops beating within a few minutes.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,270 other followers

%d bloggers like this: