Life Cycle: Death and Dying

Speakers from five faith traditions offered their perspectives on death and dying. Tanya Atwood-Adams, a former Chaplain with Hospice for the Palliative Care Unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital, representing the Quaker (Society of Friends) point of view. Naima Barbour, involved with the Rahma Health Clinic providing free health care on the South Side, speaking to Muslim practice; she is on call for the Islamic Society of Central New York when deaths occur. Penny Hart, Pastor at Apple Valley United Methodist Church and Chaplain at Elderwood, representing the United Methodist perspective. Carol Lipson, SU Professor Emerita of Writing and Literature and active in Chamber Music Society and Temple Adath Yeshurun, sharing Jewish thought. Bonnie Shoultz, a Zen Buddhist nun and a Chaplain at SU Hendricks Chapel, articulating a Buddhist perspective.

Each panelist spoke for up to 15 minutes in response to two questions: How have death and dying affected your life personally and professionally? What are the thoughts of your faith community regarding death and dying? A question and answer period followed.

Tanya noted that death is the only event in life we can predict with certainly, yet our culture approaches death with fear and grief. As a former Chaplain with Hospice, Tanya assisted those dying and their families reframe the experience as making a transition from one life to another. Hospice patients often talk about how much they have learned from their illnesses—perhaps because they have been able to reconcile with estranged loved ones and open themselves to their care givers. Tanya shared three hospice stories in which a recently bereaved person experienced a specific incident which conveyed the healing presence of their loved one and the sense that he/she was at peace. Having personally lived with a life-threatening illness, Tanya believes we must focus on living in the present (all we truly have) and always remain spiritually open to the possibility of the transcendent and mystical.

Quakers are a diverse group of believers whose congregations span a range of beliefs from scriptural inerrancy to mystical harmony. They gather in Meeting Houses for programed services or an un-programmed meetings (silent unless someone is moved to speak). Quakers believe God is in everyone; if you live well and faithfully you will be saved. Quaker funeral practices include: no embalming or viewing of the body, green burial sites, and plain pine coffins. Funerals are a time of thankfulness for the life of the friend. Quakers support death with dignity and are not opposed to organ or whole body donation. Tanya closed with a quote reflecting that we are all divine travelers, here on this Earth only for a while.

When the daughter of her close friend passed away suddenly, Naima was asked to be part of a group of women to prepare the body for Muslim burial. Although she was afraid and felt unprepared for the experience, Naima found there was something very profound and intimate about being with the person physically when she is no longer there. She was not prepared for the type of raw grief that she encountered. Naima wanted to prepare herself and help other Muslim women prepare to do this. When a woman in the community dies, women like Naima volunteer to prepare the body for burial. In this country, this often takes place in a funeral home. The body is treated with the same privacy, modesty, and dignity the she possessed when alive. Basically the body is lovingly washed in a prescribed manner and simply shrouded. Burial takes place quickly afterwards. Preparing a body for burial is an Islamic obligation and “one of the most profound things a woman can do for another woman.” Naima is on call for deaths in her community, trains women from other masjids, and acts as a liaison for Muslims from other countries who are not familiar with American funeral homes.

A wide range of cultural groups practice Islam; it is important health caregivers and funeral directors are aware that privacy issues around viewing the body may be very important to the family. Muslims believe the soul is a special part of a person that does not die. Naima personally thinks of death as a life process similar to birth: “confining, scary, perhaps painful, but ultimately liberating.”

Penny Hart began by noting that death is a part of life, and sharing some advice she was given as a newlywed when a grandparent died “Life is for the living.” As a chaplain she has seen a lot of death and walked with people through the dying process. Penny finds that praying the familiar Lord’s Prayer is meaningful and comforting even when the person may appear not to be aware or listening. When she does a funeral, she meets with the family and lets them know what a great honor it is to celebrate the life of their loved one. She asks the family to talk about their loved one and share stories and memories until she gets a mental picture of the person. In the midst of grief, the service can be healing as it celebrates the life of the person who has passed. Most of the time funeral services are held in funeral homes. Christians can be buried, embalmed, cremated, or can donate their body for science.

Christians believe in an afterlife. Some believe that your soul goes into a long sleep until Christ returns and all are raised, while others believe your soul goes immediately to Paradise. When Penny’s mom died, she knew her mom’s spirit was gone. The body is only temporary housing for the spirit which lives forever. Since her mom died, Penny has not been afraid of death. Death is a natural part of life; we should do it well and with grace. The Bible says our bodies are a temple, a God-given gift, and we should take care of our bodies.

Carol referred to “A Guide to Jewish Funeral and Mourning Customs,” and noted that customs vary across the spectrum of Jewish groups. Jews are buried in a simple casket (often pine) to symbolize that in death all people are the same. Although cremation is not encouraged, some Jews do choose this. In Orthodox sects volunteers prepare (wash and shroud) the body and stay with the body until burial. Sometimes a person is buried with his or her prayer shawl. The Orthodox believe that when the Messiah comes the dead will live again; therefore they want to keep the whole body intact. Other sects do allow organ donation. Traditionally, autopsies are not done. 

Jewish funeral services are short: they include a eulogy or good stories about the person, a sung prayer that expresses faith in immortality of the soul, and a prayer to God called the Kaddish. Mourners shovel dirt over the casket until it is totally covered, holding the shovel upside down to indicate their reluctance to say goodbye. After the funeral people gather at the home of a family member. The family may tear their clothing or wear a torn ribbon to symbolize there has been a huge loss. There are different mourning periods. Shiva, the first intense period lasts seven days after the funeral; people bring food and keep the family company. For 30 days the family doesn’t go to parties, etc. Between one month and one year there is a ceremony for raising the gravestone. Many bereaved go to synagogue each day for a year to say a prayer for the dead called Kaddish. They then continue to do this each year on the anniversary of the death, also lighting a candle on that date. During temple services, the names of those who died during that week over past years are often read aloud. Orthodox believe in reincarnation, but most other Jewish groups do not.

Carol shared the story of her father’s death after he was incapacitated by a severe stroke. She stressed the importance of talking with your loved ones about what end of life care you desire as it is very difficult for children to make those decisions when they don’t know your wishes.

Bonnie, a Zen Buddhist, said there are many variations of Buddhist thought. The book Good Life, Good Death by Rinpoche Gaelek, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, may be helpful in understanding Buddhist thinking about death. Buddhists do not speak of a soul as people of the Abrahamic faiths do. Death seen as a part of existence, and awareness of death is central in Buddhist teachings. When the Buddha became aware of illness, old age, and death, he left his royal family to pursue understanding, and after years of searching, awakened and spent the rest of his life teaching so that others could awaken to the truths he taught. Buddhists believe in karma– every action is a cause and has an effect.

There is a period after death called Bardo by Tibetan Buddhists; this is an intermediate state between two lives on earth. In the Zen tradition, a service is held 49 days after death to mark the time when the deceased’s consciousness has taken a new form; for the living, this ceremony allows them to say a more permanent good-bye. The part of a person that continues after death is subtle and different traditions see it differently. While belief in reincarnation is associated with Buddhism, it is a subtle form of consciousness rather than an individual soul that lives on after death. There is a profound awareness of impermanence, and at the same time Buddhists name the names of those who have died in various commemoration ceremonies, monthly or annually. In Zen and most other Buddhist traditions, cremations rather than burials are typical but not mandated.

It is traditional for someone to stay with the body overnight, before it is taken for cremation. Friends, family and volunteers often chant before the cremation to honor the body and witness its burning. After cremation ashes can be mixed with water and salt and buried, scattered, or spread upon the water in a lake or ocean water burial. Bonnie shared a story of a mom and baby who were seriously injured in a terrible accident. When the mother had to discontinue life support for her baby, the Zen congregation chanted with her before the equipment was removed, and one monk stayed with the body in the hospital overnight. 

Questions followed which clarified some beliefs discussed and allowed women to share their own very poignant, personal stories. Betty Lamb closed the meeting by reading an English translation of the beautiful Kaddish prayer.