Our mortality is a precious reminder of God's immortality. Knowledge of the Resurrection and of the Eternal God is a cause for hope, the hope that our lives bear witness to a reality above and beyond our own mortality.
The presence of death may nurture a sense of humility; life may be enhanced and regarded as a gift. However, the death of a loved one or simply the recognition of human frailty may lead to a profound despair and doubt.
Friends need to understand the special needs of both the dying and the bereaved. The dying mourn their own deaths as they anticipate the completion of their lives. The bereaved mourn the deaths of others. The natural process of grieving to express a sense of loss, if understood, can be encouraged along to its successful completion in both the dying and the bereaved. Expression of such emotion can be viewed as a healthy reaction, testifying to the significance of life itself.
Friends affirm that through our lives God may be revealed. Matters of life and death, such as abortion, euthanasia, suicide, fear of life or death, and aging, are held up to the Light to gain insight into God's will for our lives. It is this Light Within to which our faith is directed. It is this Light which gives life its dignity.
Turning From Time to Eternity
And this is the Comfort of the Good, that the Grave cannot hold them, and that they live as soon as they die. For Death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity. Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.
They that love beyond the World, cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies.
Nor can Spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle the Root and Record of their Friendship.
If Absence be not Death, neither is theirs.
William Penn, "Some fruits of solitude," in The witness of William Penn (eds. F. B. Tolles and E. Gordon Altderfer), 1957.
During the few remaining days of her life, there were moments of lucidity and times of speaking in code, which neither of us understood. Her vitality was visibly slipping away; often she had barely enough energy to acknowledge my presence. I moistened her lips, held her hand, and waited. Four days before she died, I was sitting quietly beside her, watching the only sign of life the pulse throbbing in her throat. I was silently praying for her to be released. Suddenly her eyes flew open. Her face took on an ecstatic expression as she gazed at the ceiling. The door had opened for her; she was seeing what lay beyond. A few moments later her eyes closed. She looked so happy and peaceful, I felt it would be an intrusion to say goodbye. The same thing happened the next day. Two days later she went through that door and found the peace she had yearned for for so long.
I, too, was at peace. A profound sense of loss will remain with me always, but contrary to all my expectations and fears there was no period of mourning and very little grief-work to be done. I had been mourning throughout. Grief-work, as I understand it, is the expression of an unfulfilled relationship of regrets, feelings of guilt, especially about unexpressed love. We were both grateful for what we had meant to each other; we had said so; and at the end we were eager for the peace that was to be hers. I felt I had completed and fulfilled a relationship that had begun at my birth.
As she lay dying, I learned much about living: it is in the lines and between the lines I have written. I learned about the power of the bonds that link mothers and daughters my mother and my daughter; about the need for letting go of old resentments and angers and the liberating effect of doing so; about the importance of frequently expressing love in verbal and non-verbal ways and the deep happiness and comfort this brings; about putting aside reticence and fears and taking risks; about paying more attention to and having faith in the non-rational aspects of our lives the dreams and day-dreams, the visions, prayers, intuitions, and imaginative happenings. I am left with the overwhelming conviction that the exits from life are as important as the entrances and that they are far more difficult to achieve with courage and dignity than most of the crises that lie in between.
Betty Gulick: "The vigil: a daughter's poignant journal of her mother's final illness, and how each came to terms with it," Prime time, April/May 1981, pp. 60-8.
Death Rims Life with the Beauty of Transiency
Hill and valley and still water, mountain and canyon and deep are the work of one creation; and why have I been placed in it? And what do I do in it, with such a little while before I am gone? I he valley stays, and the hills I climb now, and the still waters run, and I will be laid somewhere beneath them all. Yet in time they, too, will be gathered up in some mighty motion of fire or flood or ice. Therefore all valleys are shadowed with death, yet hey live in beauty. And the shadow, as in painting, is what gives roundness and ripeness to shapes and colors that would otherwise have little beauty at all. Death rims life with the beauty of transiency. It is because beauty is always passing clouds moving, waters flowing, leaves scattering, youth aging that it so pierces our hearts.
Bradford Smith: Dear gift of life, p. 19.
Return from Dying
The experts who haven't gone through it speak of transcendental perimortum or near-death experiences. I call it being dead/dying. It happened and I survived, although the "I" is different than it was before.
The process of "centering down" for meeting requires a discipline of self and conditions which are conducive to the process. I he process of physiological shock brought me to a different level of consciousness and a sense of quietness and peace that was much akin to centering down. The primary difference was that the shock made this process both effortless and profound. Without thought, or release from thought, I was suddenly there. All of the positive feelings and perceptions that I ascribe to God within, or without, were there. This was the promised rest for the weary, hope for the hopeless, and love for the forsaken. I doubt that I will again feel this sense, but I know what it is that I strive to feel. I know what it is that I will return to when I am no longer bound to this life. This knowledge is comforting, and it makes me feel very loved.
Life is commonly perceived as good. Death is defined as the absence, conclusion, or opposite of life. If death is the antithesis of life, then death must be bad. If death is bad, then it should be fought with all of the skills at our disposal. In contrast, if we accept life and death as parts of a continuum of development and reject the adversarial relationship of these states, we can accept both death and life on their own terms. My experience has led me to believe that death is no more the opposite of life than walking is the opposite of swimming. Both belong within the right environment and the right time. This manner of thinking allows one to defend life on its own terms without reference to death. I cannot help but think that life is good for its own sake and not because it constitutes a denial of the presence of death.
An acceptance of death, without reference to life, liberates our thinking about sustaining life and helping a person to die. If we are not faced with the image of death as a victory over life, we can deal with it on its own terms. We can think in terms of easing the transition to death for both the dying and the survivors. It becomes possible to be grateful for a death that released a person from suffering while damning the fate which compels the survivors to go on without the living presence of one who is loved. It becomes possible to be grateful for life and yet grateful that it will end and death will come.
S. Jean Smith-Hoffman, "Return from dying" Friends journal, March 1, 1979, pp. 13-14.
Death is the Way Life Renews Itself
And so comes the next opening the sense of being part of a universe, of a personal relatedness to all life, all growth, all creativity. Suddenly one senses that his life is not just his own little individual existence, but that he is bound in fact to all of life, from the first splitting off of the planets, through the beginning of animate life and on through the slow evolution of man. It is all in him and he is but one channel of it. What has flowed through him, flows on, through children, through works accomplished, through services rendered; it is not lost. Once given the vision of one's true place in the life stream, death is no longer complete or final, but an incident. Death is the way the only way life renews itself. When the individual has served his purpose as a channel, the flow transfers itself to other channels, but life goes on. And in this great drama of life renewed, one sees and feels the divine presence, and feels himself one with it.
Bradford Smith: Dear gift of life, p. 15.
The Quality of Life Determines the Quality of Death
The time to think about death, most truly to face it creatively, is not when it is near, but rather when one is at the peak of one's life's energy and creativity. Certainly this was the attitude of early Friends. Of course they knew death would come, but in the reading of thousands of the pages of the writings and journals of early Quakers, I have been impressed by how little concern the journal writer expressed for her or his own death or for what would happen after death. This is all the more remarkable when one remembers how common death was in those times, how central it was in most thought, and that the religions contemporary with Quakerism heavily emphasized the transition at death from ,physical life to heaven, hell, or purgatory, and each religion promised the best road to heaven.
Instead, Quakers, quietly placing their faith in the God they worshipped to handle all that happens after human death, concentrated their energy and their faith on the living of a holy life. I or, as Fox says repeatedly, our task, our responsibility is to make this present life holy, consecrated, a temple of the living God, the indwelling Christ. This gives to us the power to be the people of our God, to master and conquer temptation, to order our lives by the divine principles steadily revealed to us.
When I was a child, like so many others, I learned the little prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
The prayer meant nothing to me then, for my death seemed an impossibly far-off event. We have created a culture which resists even the idea of mortality and, when it has to be faced, puts it in sanitized, impersonal hospitals and surrounds the disposal of the body with flowers, music, beautiful words and carefully kept cemeteries. Now that this illusion is shattered and I face each day knowing it really can be the last day of my life, I believe I have come to a more wholesome understanding of the relationship of life and death. And the fundamental truth which emerges is that the quality of one's life determines the quality of one's death. William James wrote that Quakerism is fundamentally a religion of integrity. Nowhere is the level of our integrity tested better than in the way our lives measure, when we know we face death, with what we would have wanted them to be.
Cecil E. Hinshaw, "On living and dying," Friends journal, August 1-15, 1979, pp. 4-5.
Reverent simplicity in respect to the outward practices attending death we earnestly commend to Friends everywhere. The funerals of Friends should be held in a spirit of quiet peace and trust. Natural sorrow there will be, especially for friends taken away in youth and in the strength of their days, but often our thought may be one of great thankfulness for lives which have borne witness to the upholding power of Christ.
London Y M.: Christian faith and practice, 1960, no. 529.