Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dying and the Community

I just learned that a man I have known for more than twenty-five years died last year.  This news came as a great shock, even though he was neither young nor in great health.  The shock came from not knowing when I phoned his home to ask how he was doing.

He was not a close friend but always stayed in touch with people by forwarding humorous emails; he established a community online in his retired years, for which I was grateful. I am glad to remember him in that happy context.

His widow told me he was firmly opposed to having a funeral or an obituary or anything public. In this, I guess he is not unique, but it troubles me that no public notice, available in the media or online, is made of deaths. It seems to me that each birth and each death in a community is of vital importance and deserves to be known.

The reason for such privacy also bothers me. Is it a sense of shame about dying, some hidden fear?  Why does a man want to slink away like an animal in the woods and expire unsung, unheralded?  It seems to me his friends, including those of us who shared in his many emails, should be told so they can support the family with their thoughts and prayers.   I would think his family deserves to feel such support.

But it is not for me to be critical of my late friend or his family, only to remember him among all the others I have known who have left this world.

As John Donne wrote in his famous Meditation XVII ("For whom the bell tolls"), "each man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind."  He was writing, of course, as a Christian in a society united by the shared belief that no one can be isolated from the community into which they are born and baptized.

It is impossible today to apply that way of thinking to our diverse, pluralistic society. But I still think everyone deserves a bit of public recognition at the end of life's journey.

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