Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Random Thoughts About Death

I'm ending the Cooperative Program series prematurely. I have other thoughts to include, but I'm going to save some of my powder for another forum.

Twelve years ago today my Dad passed away from gastro-esophageal cancer at the age of 57. Death is somewhat on my mind today, and I share with you these few thoughts, none of them very profound, really.

  1. Changing medical technology has destroyed the phenomenon of "last words." Dad died, like most people do today, in a drug-induced stupor. His last words, whatever they were, were the product of a bad reaction to Dilaudid—nonsensical and disturbed ramblings that gave way to insentience at a switch from Dilaudid to Morphine.

    I'm not entirely sure that I like this phenomenon. I'm not some Superman with a high tolerance for pain—not at all. At the first sign of struggle, I'm sure that I'll demand the good stuff. However, sitting at a desk at the age of 39 and presuming to be a long, long way away from the big moment, the curious researcher in me wants to know what it is like to die—doesn't want to miss the unrepeatable experience of a lifetime—and the wordsmith in me admittedly yearns somewhat for a final moment to turn the appropriate phrase at just the right time.

    I'm ever impressed by Stonewall Jackson's feat in that regard: "Let us cross over the river and rest beneath the shade of the trees." Whatever God was showing him at that moment must have been as serene and palliative as anything flowing through an I.V., and he was able to communicate it to the comfort of those whom he left behind.

  2. I wonder sometimes whether there's actually as much inequity in health care as there is mere appearance of inequity in health care. Don't get me wrong, for I am not alleging that there is no actual inequity in health care in our country. Certainly there is. But here's what I'm talking about:

    My father had done well at business by the time that he died. He was a man of means. He received his cancer diagnosis from the oncologist in our simple nearby city of Jonesboro, AR. I'm not trying to demean my hometown at all by suggesting that Jonesboro, AR, is not Johns Hopkins—neither is the place where I live, nor the place where you live (I'm taking the huge leap here in presuming that I don't have a high readership at Johns Hopkins). Dad's prognosis at a garden-variety oncologist in Jonesboro, AR? You'll be dead in six months (said much more courteously, of course).

    But my Dad had the wherewithal to go to Johns Hopkins if he so desired. He didn't go there, but only because that wasn't really the place to go. He jetted halfway across the country to attend appointments with the leading researcher and physician for his kind of cancer in the world (as best as we could identify him through our research). We met incredibly intelligent and sensitive people. We got for Dad the best care available in the world. We spared no expense. We prayed together daily. We saw miracles of both the medical and the heavenly kind.

    And Dad was still dead in six months. By slightly different means, and after a far better Summer than we had been led to expect, but just as dead nonetheless.

    Does money make a difference in health care outcomes? Of course it does. But do we or do we not believe in the sovereign and loving hand of God in such things? I believe that God had set the appointed time of my father's death and that it transpired as God intended. It is, I believe, actually appointed to a man once to die. None of us has enough money to change that fact.

    Could it be that a great deal of our health care money is spent in a successful bid not to postpone our deaths, but to strengthen our denial about their inevitability?

  3. People's behavior at death-related crises can make a powerful impact.

    Some of you will know already that my Dad worked in the 70s as a mid-level Democrat bureaucrat in Arkansas (he ran our congressman's home office). I was raised to be a stalwart Democrat. Arkansas is a pretty small state (several times more people live in any decent city in the US), and among the things that happened during this period in my Dad's life is that he developed a relationship with an up-and-coming Arkansas politician named Bill Clinton. Yes. I know. Everybody who's driven through Arkansas in the middle of the night has some sort of a way that they are intimate best-buddies with Bill Clinton. The world is sick-to-death of hearing about it from every Arkansan who comes down the pike. My apologies for the name-dropping. There's a point, I promise you.

    Dad remained a Democrat throughout my entire childhood and until after I went off to Baylor (where I arrived on campus as a Democrat myself, being one of the few people on the planet made more conservative during their Baylor education). Later, entirely as a consequence of the issues of abortion, socialized medicine, and the homosexual agenda, Dad became a card-carrying, contribution-making, straight-ticket-voting Republican, which he remained until the day of his death.

    So, there's my Dad, lying on his deathbed in Baptist Hospital East in Memphis, twenty years removed from his political career, a renegade from his former political allegiance. Into the room strolls a nurse saying with rolling eyes, "Down at the nurse's station we've got some crackpot on the phone who says that they're calling from the White House because the President wants to speak to your Dad."

    "That's probably the real deal," my sister said as the blood drained from the nurse's face.

    And then the call was transferred and my sister spoke briefly with President Clinton before holding the phone up to my father's ear and letting Dad listen to a few words from an old friend. The medicine had long since removed from my Dad the capacity for speech (see point #1 above), but as the President concluded his kind words, tears traced a trail down my Dad's cheeks.

    God help us both if President Clinton and I were to try to engage in any serious discussion about politics. But you do not catch this blog lobbing gratuitous shots in the direction of President Bill Clinton, nor will you hear its author doing so in other venues. If I can avoid it at all, I just don't say anything negative about Bill Clinton. He had nothing to gain politically, monetarily, egotistically—nothing at all to gain that I can discern from calling a friend from so very long ago and in such relative obscurity, with whom he finally was not even able to speak. I can only presume that President Clinton acted entirely out of compassion and love.

    And so, as a pastor, this phenomenon reminds me that my behavior in ministering at the time of death (and I don't claim to do any better a job than average on this score, so I need to remind myself) is behavior that can make powerful and lasting impressions upon some people in some circumstances.

  4. I don't like all funerary traditions equally. When Dad died, we broke with the standard course of events in our area. I've since learned that every different community seems to have slightly different traditions regarding what people do to mark deaths. Here's what we did, which I really liked:

    First, we received visitors at the funeral home by standing in front of the closed casket and making a receiving line of sorts. We all got to visit with each person without wondering whether we had missed anybody, those who visited had a clear picture of their night's agenda (i.e., make it through the line, speak with the family, and then leave if desired), and the fact that we had no gawking at Dad's embalmed remains seemed to take nothing away from the night.

    Second, we had a simple semi-private burial early the next morning. Family and close friends were there. We had no mile-long parade of headlight-burning vehicles to meet there. We simply gathered at the cemetery in the morning and delivered the casket to the plot.

    Finally, we held a celebrative worship service as an early-afternoon memorial gathering. The service came complete with praise music, beautiful solos, multiple preachers, and an uplifting experience for the overflow crowd. Many were business associates, not all of whom we knew to be Christians. They heard the gospel that day, but perhaps more importantly, they saw it in our response to Dad's death and in the things we highlighted about his life.

    When I die, if anyone cares to know what now pleases me to anticipate as a belated send-off for me, allow me to say now that I wouldn't do things any differently than we did them for Dad.

Like I said, just a few disjointed thoughts rattling around in my brain today. They may not be very useful in and of themselves, but maybe they'll collide with some of yours and fuse into something of value.

P.S.: And not very much related to the subject of death, I want to note finally that I was blessed with a truly wonderful Dad. He wasn't perfect, but he never stopped growing in Christ until he died and was completed. Never one time in all of my life was I ever anything but proud that he was my Dad. Not everybody gets that, and I'm thankful for him.


Bob Cleveland said...

Wonderful post. Simply wonderful.

I've buried a dad. And I was a real Daddy's Boy (caps intentional). His death came via a stroke, and he was a believer.

I also spoke at my only brother's funeral, necessitated by esophageal cancer. He was not a believer, and it was vastly different, even though it was positive for me and for my family, on several fronts.

We all get to die, you know. And as one who has faced the demon cancer from the inside, I can tell you that contemplation of death .. REAL contemplation of it .. makes us all the more ready, and able, to live well.

Thanks much for sharing this.

WesInTex said...


Thank you so much for sharing your heart with us. I too have buried my father, and honestly, there are not many days that go by in a row that I don’t think of him – and miss him. Unlike your father, my dad died suddenly and quickly in the night. We had no “last words” either, but of course for very different reasons.

Just before dad died we had talked on the phone. During the course of the conversation we talked about a mutual friend who had died in his sleep just a few months before. Dad told me, “If God would answer just one last prayer, I’d ask Him to let me go just like that.” Two days later my mother called and said that he had died during the night. He had had a very good day at work and then with mom. He went to bed and woke up in the arms of God. He was only 66.

There is a passage in John that has spoken to me for many years. It is in the story of Jesus’ restoration of Peter to the apostleship (John 21:15-22). In that passage Jesus tells Peter that in his later life, the fisherman will suffer for the sake of the gospel. Then John makes the observation, “He said this to signify by what kind of death he [meaning Peter] would glorify God,” (John 21:19a). I have often wondered if we don’t diminish death somehow by seeking to prolong life beyond a certain point. True, death is our enemy, but it is a toothless enemy. As Paul said, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Php. 1:21.

Thanks again for your thoughts. I also liked your father’s funeral – I had told my wife years ago that I had wanted must the same, but to do whatever she wanted – I wasn’t going to be there. 8-)


Andrew said...

My father passed away five years ago today (10/13) from metastatic cancer. I agree with your point about pain medication: although my brother, mother, and I were able to say our last goodbyes, I have wondered if the medication had prolonged his struggles (as in a excruciatingly slow decline into cardiac and respiratory failure).

My father's legacy for my brother and I was his desire to "die well", as he lived, faithful to the Lord. He did that and we have been marked by that faithfulness for the remainder of our earthly years.

Awaiting to see our fathers again,

Anonymous said...


Great post. My dad passed away in June of this year. I can relate to much of what you said.

Interestingly, my dad dodged esophageal cancern by getting an EGD that showed Barrett's esophagus, a precursor to cancer. He had his esophagus removed and never had a problem. He passed at 82 from a sarcoma, another form of cancer.

We did things differently, too. He wanted to be cremated. His remains were placed in a columnbarium (sp?), a wall like structure at the church he had been a member of for years. That was a private, family ceremony. We had a memorial service the next day.

On another note, my father in law, a retired SBC missionary, was a chaplain at Baptist Memorial East in Memphis during the time you were there. I bet you did not meet him, but there is probably a good chance that he prayed for and with your dad.

Take care.


Anonymous said...

So many people prefer not to speak about death and/or their experiences. Thank you for sharing this story about your father. And to the believer who is to always be ready to give an account, this is just one more reason to share about the hope we do have in Christ.

While I have never personally been in favor of cremation your story is beautiful. And on the day of rapture your father's remains and those who he "churched" with will all go at the same time. How much fun that will be.

Thanks for sharing...

Anonymous said...


thanks for the very nice compliment.


R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks for this post, Brother Bart.

selahV said...

Bart, at this writing my grandson-in-law is watching over a father who has just been given 6 months at most to live. He has cancer in his lungs that has spread throughout his body. It was a shock to discover this. He's only 55. Such a tough time for my granddaughter's husband. He's in the airforce and got to come here for a week and will have to return to Mississippi. He plans to come back in a couple of weeks on Thanksgiving break. Please keep them all in your prayers. It's very hard for him to talk because of the breathing apparatus he needs because one lung is non-functioning.

It all brings back the memory of losing Daddy in January of this year. So did your post. thanks.

what a poignant story about President Clinton. Thanks for sharing that anecdote. selahV