Keeping the Faith

Memento Mori – Remember That You Will Die

“I can’t find your pulse,” the nurse said.

This didn’t bode well for my employment prospects.  I was sitting there, breathing, blinking, alive as far as I could tell, enduring a medical check for a job I wanted so badly, and which hinged on this evaluation.

The nurse continued prodding at my wrist to no avail.  I waited for her to lift her eyes and solemnly shake her head, to say, “I’m sorry Claire, the medical requirements for this position are strict: criteria number 5.4 specifies you must be alive!”

She didn’t say that, of course.  Eventually she did find a vein with the requisite throb of blood flow to confirm my humanity to the new boss.  Cue Hallelujah Chorus.

phonto-1One day my pulse will stop.  We each, every one of us, have a death date.  We can frequent the gym, gargle green smoothies, cook with goji berries, chia seeds and maca powder, detox, pop vitamins and steer clear of sugar like it’s the devil incarnate, but even with the best, most holistic, health-conscious treatment of our flesh, it will still ultimately expire.

I’ve heard it said that we are not prepared to live until we are prepared to die.  Psalm 90:12 says a similar thing, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (NIV)

I read the most profound story in Frankie magazine (Sept/Oct edition) of a young woman who, after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 22 and enduring a battery of treatments, continues to live with its threat, needing blood tests every three to six months.

Michal Wright’s story opens like this, “I live by the Latin motto Memento Mori, which means ‘remember that you will die’.  Some people think that’s morbid, but if you remember you’re going to die, you’ll also remember you are living.”

And live she does.

The music student took up the harp after her diagnosis and was introduced to the concept of music thanatology.  What, you say?  I’d never heard of it either.

“Music thanatologists use music, specifically harp and voice, to comfort people at the end of their lives,” Michal explains.

She begins a two-year program in music thanatology this month with the hope of making training available in Australia.

“I think any kind of suffering develops compassion, and that deepening of compassion is what has drawn me to music thanatology,” Michal says.

“As a society we don’t handle death and dying very well; we wish it away.  That makes it hard for the person to go through the process and let go.  I want to be able to sit comfortably with what’s happening to them.”

Any day now our state government will again attempt to legalise euthanasia ahead of the state election in March next year.  You may have seen the ads by lobby group Dying with Dignity – they’re massaging social conscience, trying to leverage support.

Yes – talk about death. Talk about it because it’s relevant to everyone who has blood pulsing through their veins. But let’s not be so narrow as to consider ‘assisted dying’ the holy grail of death choice.

Michal, a 29-year-old living with the possibility that cancer will take her life soon, without warning, and perhaps painfully, said she wouldn’t change a thing.

“Even if I live a shorter life, it will have been more fulfilling,” she says.

Death makes us live with a sharper sense of purpose.

Memento Mori.

First published in The Examiner Newspaper for Keeping the Faith column on Monday September 23, 2013.

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13 Comments

  1. Dying with “dignity” is based on the humanist idea that one has the right to choose when to die. The right to choose to die would not be able to be separated from the right to choose to live. One does not choose when one lives as it is a matter of nature, not right. Thus, there is no such thing as the right to die.It is an oxymoron.

  2. Neil C says

    Hi there Claire; { nice piece, I chuckled heartily at yer intro, very funny 🙂 } ….. anyway, agreed.
    Death can be a tricky subject for many folks. The fear-mongering/eternal rewards programme offered by various religious groups is one of the root causes of this problem. Pain, loss of dignity, loss of self determination are others, quite apart the all encompassing fact that we have almost no real, testable evidence as to the mechanics of human death processes. It just happens !!
    Kerry Packer had a heart attack and was famously dead for 8 mins, he said that there was absolutely nothing on the “other” side. Then again some folks talk of lights/ floating, peaceful feelings, religious revelations etc etc. Much like our human experiences are varied, so are the “reports” of the post human existence experience.
    One of the major problems with both Christianity’s and Islam’s “eternal rewards for pre-set behaviour incentive program”, or “Heaven” as it is referred to by the hopeful applicants, is that it erroneously encourages us to believe that we are so completely special that the whole world, with everybody and everything in it, was created expressly for just for us !! And so long as we regularly grovel in the correct fashion (but only to the correct deity), we will then magically be rewarded eternally for this stunningly selfish display of egotistic, sheep like naivety. Endless “love” in some endless consumer/spiritual paradise whose pleasures apparently vary from multitudes of available virgins (who now apparently wanna shag ya), to endless platonic ultra love-ins with Jesus (spoken in Aramaic of course). I realise and admit that I have a larger than necessary (and sometimes embarrassing) ego, but even I do not think that I deserve a never ending reward (or punishment) for anything that I may or may not do on our planet Earth !!
    Dealing with the realities of death; palliative care is a great option for folks where applicable. Palliative home care even more so !!
    Compassionate euthanasia, living wills with personalised pre set dementia standards should all be in the tool-bag. Self determination is an absolute must too !! I believe that denial of one’s right to die peacefully (especially now we have the technology) is a gross affront to humanity and common sense.
    I have a developed a different and altogether more modern, personal outlook with regards to my own death. I have studied the life expectancy/reality of humans in various civilisations over the various ages of human history, whether it is through written records or through archaeology. I have pondered these facts, then added the reality that I watched my super clever father die as a sad, scared, demented vegetable from trauma induced dementia (old WW2 head injury came back to haunt his final years). He was basically dead/living zombie for the last 5+ years of his life 😦
    This knowledge combined with the obviously outrageous reality of Earth’s current hyper over-population has led me to a different exit strategy…..hopefully !!
    I am 45 years old now. I figure that 70 years is a grand old age (when taken through the lens of human history, combined with the complex realities of aging). So, my goal is to be as healthy as I can be till then. At some stage during my 70th year I shall self terminate (using Nembutal hopefully). Telling my friends and family this…… was a very interesting experience. The range of initial reactions was varied. Initially many did not understand, as we have been conditioned/forced by our society to fight for every last breath. But once fully explained, once assured my love for them had not dimmed, almost all have said that it is at least a valid idea. Many think that it is nothing less than a well thought out plan that minimises heartache and uncertainty.
    Death in our modern society is expensive to say the least. A long drawn out death from a chronic disease can be beyond expensive, it can undo your entire life’s work. It can bankrupt you and your loved ones financially and rob any sense of dignity from all involved. Much of the time our best efforts are really just p**sing against the winds of entropy…….. Yes some folks make miracle recoveries and go on to live wonderful lives to till 100+, but reality suggests they are a fortunate few. Buying extra (lower quality) time at the end of my natural life cycle doesn’t make much sense to me.
    Death in our modern society is not just death any more. There can be an awfully long, drawn out pre-death existence, lasting many years in some cases. I don’t know about you; but I for one do not want to spend my final years vegetating (or spiralling towards vegetation) in a nursing home creating nothing but expense and sh*t, consuming vital resources that could sustain those who can still live in the way that we all love and aspire to. Death will always bring loss and tears to the living/loving ones that are left behind. So then perhaps having some certainty is the way to go ?? Take some of the unexpected and unknown out of the whole equation.
    I aim to die whilst I’m still healthy, happy and sane……..Just hope that tomorrow it isn’t; “mind that bus”…..”what bus ??”……SPLAT.

    P.s. On a personal level, deciding when you wish to die does give your current existence a new, clearer focus (as you have alluded to Claire)…..kinda like some folks being told by their doctor that they have only a short time to live. From that day forth, they consciously decide to make them all count (and to notice them). In doing so many are gifted with a sense of contentment and gratitude for their lives that they may perhaps have overlooked before, perhaps even taken for granted like so many of us do, or perhaps it just eluded them. Well, I have gifted myself a 25 year window of life gratitude opportunity……..hopefully !!

    In a funny, sorta round about way I am taking Psalm 90:12, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” more to heart than any Christian who personally opposes the idea of euthanasia for the terminally ill and the cruelly pained, let alone my desire to die/euthanase peacefully, in an organised, dignified manor whilst I’m still happy, healthy and sane.

    Claire…. I agree with you so whole heartedly that death can make us live with a sharper sense of purpose, so perhaps the trick is to get that sense whilst there is still a complete life to enjoy ?? I am genuinely comfortable with my plans, the sense of freedom from knowing that I am filling in so much more of my own life’s story is really quite profoundly comforting.
    As for an eternal Heaven; errrrm no thanks, I’ll politely leave it on the side of my ego’s plate.
    PPPPss….. I find it really quite funny after reading so many of your pieces that we are alike on so many basic concepts, such as personal decency, friendliness, loving, attentive child rearing and stuff. Yet we are so utterly, diametrically (implacably?) opposed in other areas. You (I think) believe that goodness comes from an external influence, I believe that goodness comes from within one’s own learned sphere, which is why kindly, interactive parents are intergenerational treasures. Their kindness and love ripples down through the ages, passed on by those lucky enough to have experienced it. 🙂 Cheerio then !!

    • I WILL reply to this Neil – really appreciate your post – just have to find a free half hour, probably this evening… watch this space 😉

    • Hi Neil

      I think I can across your comment on the ABC about the Pope’s comment that the Church should be more welcoming. I completely agree with you and am heartened by your open-mindedness towards the Church and the Pope.

      With regards to life issues from a theological perspective, I thought you may be interested in http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/. Muehlenberg explores such issues.

      Regards

      Spinz

    • Neil – I think your piece is longer than my piece! Haha – you should write a column or something 😉

      But seriously, I felt a bit sad when I read your life/death plans. I thought of my own parents and how I would feel if they decided to end their lives at 70. I would feel robbed. My parents gave much to me in my childhood, giving their resources, love, time and so on to ensure I entered the adult world as a well-balanced person, able to contribute to society (whether or not I am that is another matter!!!). Life has a cycle to it that enhances community – and it’s a cycle the Western World has largely scorned. In short, parents care for children care for parents. In our children’s’ vulnerability, we nurture and care for them and it should follow that in the vulnerability of our old age and illness, our children will nurture and care for us.

      The ego trip, the way I see it, is that we have become so independent of one another, even of our families. Third World countries care for their elders with more attentiveness and love (not resources of course) than we do. It’s not a ‘given’ that we become responsible for our parents’ care and comfort in their twilight years – it’s a choice. I dunno, I just think that’s pretty sad. Humans are built for community. We become better people as we interact with one another. Usually, big character changes and life lessons are learnt through tough seasons.

      I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to see your father deteriorate at the end of his life, but I wonder, do you think you would be the same person today aside from that experience? I’m not suggesting that your dad suffered SO THAT you would have some kind of impacting moment. But I do think our culture has come to a point where we do anything to dodge the uncomfortable, the inconvenient, the unsightly and other uns and ins! Abortion is another example where death is the easier option taken.

      With regard to my comment about death making us live with a sharper sense of purpose – well, every moment is a gift, hey! I’m glad we agree that if we were able to bottle that concept and guzzle it like tonic daily, we’d be so much more ALIVE! Ironic really.

      Although I disagree with much of what you say Neil – I love the way you think! God gave you a great brain, I just pray that one day we might even agree on matters of theology!!

      God is good. Everything that is good is God. Therefore, the goodness you experience in the beautiful family chain that you speak about, is also God. You don’t have to believe in God to experience his goodness. Just a thought.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Neil – you’ve broadened my worldview, as you often do 🙂

      • Neil C says

        Hello there Claire, sorry…..only just read your great reply. I will digest it…..and give ya a short (promise) couple of points….tonight or tomorrow. 🙂
        Hope you and your readers have a super day, cheerio then from Neil.

      • Neil C says

        Hello again Claire…… I did promise to keep it short, errrm which by the very act of informing you that I am indeed doing just that makes the reply longer. 😉
        I do agree with your salient point in regards to the “Western World” and its corruption of our most basic societal structures, family interactions and expectations. But the unfortunate reality is that our society is no longer “natural”, we must adapt quickly to the cultural hyper evolution that we ourselves have allowed and are currently experiencing !!
        Believe me (after the current R.C. and healing process), the next major cultural drama/uproar that we will face as a developed 21st century Australia is (awfully bluntly) “how do we store and pay to upkeep all these aged, infirm and or insane former tax payers” ?? Make no mistake it will be a chilling tale if we don’t start getting real in our personal life plan responsibilities.
        Claire, please don’t feel sad for me with regards to my planned life termination schedule. Hooray, all smiley again 🙂 Think of Psalm 90:12 if it helps 😉
        Here is a short recap of part of your reply to me. I have made a couple of spacing changes to try highlight my point using this type of media….. ” I thought of my own parents and how I would feel if they decided to end their lives at 70. I would feel robbed.”
        Now perhaps you are thinking “what a strange person”, or perhaps “hello Mr. Gumby” ?? (right on both counts again gal)…… errm ….. the reason I wished to highlight it like that is, unlike the shared experience of birth between a mummy and her offspring, death is a one ticket, one passenger affair. Even though you may be in the room holding ya loved ones hand, it is still entirely 100% their death. Now this has direct and critical relevance when you then apply the reality of what the dying person feels (emotionally and physically). You made the very reasonable observation that my Dad’s death was (for me) difficult, unpleasant and something that modern world me would like to avoid. Yes, yes and yes. But what you are perhaps not fully understanding is that the person it mattered to most and who suffered most in reality…..was my Dad.
        During his nightmarish winding down and death, he suffered every imaginable personal indignity that he had previously stated (years before) he feared. He was a doctor all his working life, he had at times cared for geriatric patients (from WW1) who also survived with head injuries similar in nature to his. He knew from first-hand, professional experience the worst case scenario.
        Dad had two doctorates along with many other academic qualifications, he was a studious, very fit, quiet, humble man who did not much wrong. His lifetime of study, knowledge and community were stolen from him whilst he still lived. Then his personality was washed away by the same cruel thief, as if to cover the tracks of their dastardly crime. What was left was a sack of withered sad flesh. Most often either unresponsive, or conversely, utterly terrified by everyone, because we were now all blank strangers in a world where explanation and communication are just gone…… Try to minister to someone’s medical or personal (or spiritual) needs, someone who not only can’t tell you what is wrong with them (or where), but doesn’t know what wrong is, and is only concerned with why all these strangers are attacking him, oblivious to the fact he is chained to the bed, or why his poor old wrists are worn through to the bone from the inappropriate (for an elderly dementia patient) type of handcuffs on the bed at the hospital. The pain is there, he screamed it endlessly like a wounded, brutalised animal, and so surprisingly loudly, that no one present could retreat to any reality-free comfort zone.
        Unfortunately the stark, unsettling truth is that many folks’ death processes are (unfortunately) a final, irreversible and pointless blight on a life of dignity, on their individuality and on their innate nobility.
        After much considered thought and reflection as well as running my own exhaustive, internalised personal recrimination program, I can assure you that there are no life lessons on offer that are worth learning from a course where the fees are so excruciatingly high. Compassionate euthanasia would have been a GODSEND !!…….but unfortunately my primitive society forced him to endure a degrading living death that humiliated and de-humanised a man who was a dignified, deeply decent old gentleman. For some, there comes a time in their life processes when good intentions and learned verse are not enough to “hold fast matey”.
        Anyways; just to ever so slightly AND cheekily twist your beautiful words ‘n’ phrases….
        You don’t have to believe in God to experience goodness. Just a thought. 😉
        You is good. Everything that is good is enhanced by Your kindness. Therefore, the goodness You experience in the beautiful family chain that we speak about, is also You.
        Sorry about the overly verbose output again (contrary to previously stated, even avowed intentions), other stuff still to tell/learn ya 😉 …….one day.
        P.s. Claire; please have a look at http://htwins.net/scale2/ ….The Scale of the Universe. Have a look at what Jesus and/or Nature has been up to. Truly wondrous, enjoy !!

      • Neil C says

        Dang !! The spacing around the “I”s has not come out in my reply to ya, thereby kinda de-highlighting my attempted point to ya. Oh well, I’m sure you will muddle through. Cheerio from Neil.

      • Neil C says

        Here is a short recap of part of your reply to me. I have made a couple of spacing changes to try highlight my point using this type of media…..
        ” ,,,,,,,,I,,,,,,,,, thought of my own parents and how ,,,,,,,,I,,,,,,,, would feel if they decided to end their lives at 70. ,,,,,,,,,I,,,,,,,,,, would feel robbed.”
        The commas represent where the original spaces were, before Mr. Website decided it has a firmer grasp of the context in which I was using the spaces than what I have. 😉 Byyyyeeeee

  3. Roger Martin says

    Hi Claire,

    Can you give me the link to find your article in The Examiner.
    It seems to disappear on Thursdays.

    Blessings for an enjoyable day!

  4. Hi all the progressive liberals who think they are so open-minded. I invite you all to debate the topic of euthanasia and argue about how it will not devalue life and human dignity.

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