Authors: Eve Joseph
The battle for our souls is no longer played out the way it was in the fifteenth century. What, I wonder, is the
of our time? Whereas in the past we turned to priests or holy men, we now look to doctors for miraculous cures and extended lives. And yet we often pray for some kind of divine intervention even when we’re not sure what or whom we believe in. There is a fundamental difference between saying “I’ll pray for you” as opposed to “You’re in my thoughts” or “I’m sending you love.”
Religions point to the realm of the supernatural, assuring people they are not alone in the world, and yet, in an increasingly secular society, how do you bring people to God? “Through parking and bathrooms,” says Scott Weatherford, lead pastor of Calgary’s First Alliance Church. Weekend services in the church are high-tech multimedia spectacles with rock bands, big-screen monitors and fair-trade coffee, and a cupholder in every one of the 1,704 seats. It is harder to pull people in these days without a gimmick. Harder to believe in a God who, as one young pastor says, causes a place to boom economically in order “to do the good in the world that needs doing.” In this case, that would place God smack dab up to his elbows in the black gold of the Alberta tar sands.
In the twenty-first century, how would we illustrate the art of dying? Gone would be the Devil with his hook, Death with his lance, the angel at the head of the bed. Replace the cot with a hospital bed, the angel with a doctor in scrubs, and put the Devil in charge of the IVs, heart monitors, ventilators, catheters, bags of blood and canisters of oxygen. As for Death himself, look as you will, he’s nowhere to be seen. Of course, if all this talk of devils and demons is too much,
you can dab—on your wrists and behind your ears—Ars Moriendi, a perfume oil made in California’s Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, whose most popular blends are Dance of Death, Darkness and Les Fleurs du Mal.
Many of the people I met were dying without the structure or comfort of traditional belief; it was no longer clear exactly what life after death might look like. The promise of an afterlife brings peace to some, but it is also fraught with many uncertainties. For Catholics, the souls of the dead spend time in purgatory until fully cleansed of imperfections. Limbo, derived from the Latin
meaning “hem” or “border,” is the region on the border of hell reserved for pre-Christian saints and unbaptized babies. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that heaven is divided into three separate kingdoms of glory: the celestial, the terrestrial and the telestial. The celestial kingdom is reserved for married Mormon couples who are on their way to becoming gods and goddesses; the terrestrial kingdom is for honourable people who have allowed themselves to become blinded by the wickedness of the world; and the telestial kingdom exists solely for liars, adulterers, murderers, thieves and whoremongers. Salvation, according to the Quran, depends on a man’s actions and attitudes on earth. The afterworld is a place of reckoning. It is the promised land and the place where we will be judged.
Sometimes it isn’t death we fear, but something else. Once, upon returning from a community visit, I was met at the elevator by a nurse who said there was a patient who was very distressed and wanted to know what it was like to die. “I told him that you would tell him,” she said.
Right, I thought.
When I went to his room, Alistair was nodding off in a recliner with a glass of Scotch in his hand. “So,” he said, opening his eyes, “you are the one who’s going to tell me what it’s like to die?”
All the things I had thought about saying on my walk down the hall to his room flew out the window. “No,” I said, “I don’t have a clue. You need to tell me.”
Alistair took a long drink, and for the next two hours he talked and I listened. He talked about his fear that he had not been a good enough man and that, if there was someone on gatekeeping duty in the heavens, he would have a lot to answer for. At one point, motioning to a vase of slender purple irises on his dresser, he said, “Death has been sitting there for three nights, and tonight I think we’ll sleep together.”
“God is, or He is not,” wrote Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century. But which side to choose? His wager, as it was known, went something like this: weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is…. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. Heads or tails. In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter so much what we believe.
Danish physicist and Nobelist Niels Bohr once hung a horseshoe over his doorway. Appalled friends exclaimed that surely he didn’t put any trust in such pathetic superstition. “No, I don’t,” he replied with composure, “but apparently it works whether you believe in it or not.”
I believe it would be a fine thing to leave the world in a small wood and paper boat holding a lighted candle.
What belief—or perhaps instinct—compels the living to carry the dead out into the sun? Out of darkness into the light. A woman I met, whose premature baby had spent her short life in the intensive care unit, wanted her to feel the sun, wind, rain on her face. She wanted her to breathe air that didn’t come from a plastic tube and to see something other than a fluorescent sun. When it became evident that her baby was going to die, the doctor agreed to take her off life support and bag her—give her oxygen by hand—until she was out of the hospital.
A strange cortège of nurses, family and friends walked in single file behind the doctor through the corridors. It was April. Winter and spring were doing their dance. When we came out the back door, it was raining. By the time we had walked across the parking lot and made our way to a nearby grassy hill, the sun was shining.
The baby’s grandfather took up his drum and sang a song to her. She breathed on her own for a good five minutes. When she took her last breath, a single clap of thunder reverberated across the sky.
Her grandfather believed the clap of thunder meant the Creator had opened the heavens, swooped down, picked the baby up in his arms and booted it right on back to heaven.
My childhood world was filled with presences: fairies in the garden, water-babies beneath the lily pads in sunken barrels, birds that portended disaster the way the black clouds rolling in off the North Shore Mountains signalled rain. I was predisposed to believe in spirits; when you spend time
around the dying, it is almost impossible not to believe in something. For most people I met, it was not Jesus or Allah who appeared in the days and hours before death; rather, it was a husband or lover, a long-lost mother, a wife, a child. Sometimes they appeared in dreams; other times the dying would just point at something nobody else could see. Quite often the dead would appear days before death and set up camp in the room.
I don’t see spirits. But once, years ago, when I was eight months pregnant, I heard singing and drumming coming from the site of a Shaker church that had burnt to the ground years before. My mother-in-law said spirits were singing to welcome the baby, but I was never sure what I’d heard or whether I had really heard anything at all.
Since the 1960s, there has been a shift from “dwelling” to “seeking.” We spend less time contemplating God than we do pursuing self-enlightenment, identifying ourselves as “spiritual” more than “religious.” Many hospices have spiritual care coordinators responsible for “matters of the spirit.” Inner experience has come to take precedence over creeds and congregations; we are encouraged to look within to find our spiritual selves as opposed to searching the starry heavens for evidence of our maker. If religion serves to calm our fears about the void and to explain where we go when we disappear, contemporary spirituality is defined by possibility over certainty. For most of the people I met, the afterlife was an unanswered question. Before 1971, less than 1 percent of Canadians ticked the “no religion” box on national surveys. Two generations later, writes Michael Valpy in the
Globe and Mail,
23 percent, or nearly a quarter of the population,
say they aren’t religious. Overall, we now die with less certainty about where we’re going than we did in the past; and it seems more of us are dying certain in our belief that there is nothing.
From the beginning of time, we have looked to mythology, philosophy, religion and science to explain to ourselves what happens after death. As narratives, they deal with the known, the unknown and the unknowable. It is the unknowable that sometimes gives me pause, that makes me wonder.
In the mid-1990s, I met a woman in her late thirties who was dying of lung cancer. She and her partner of ten years married on a West Coast beach a few months before her death. When asked if she wanted her ashes scattered on the same beach, she shot back, “I never double-book.” She was funny and brilliant, and after she died, her husband appeared to go into a grief-induced psychosis. In the oldest story in the world, Gilgamesh cries out when his beloved friend Enkidu dies,
May the bear, the hyena, the panther mourn you,
may the leopard, stag, lion—all creatures
of the plains mourn you.
As long as I have breath I will cry out
like one who has lost her beloved.
After the woman’s body was removed from their home, her husband called to her from where he was lying on the couch. He asked her what she wanted for dinner and if she thought he needed a haircut. He didn’t hear his children talking to him or his dad trying to tell him that she was gone.
A few days later, he didn’t see me when I sat with him at the kitchen table as he began to write the eulogy that he was to deliver later that afternoon in the university chapel. He picked up a pen and began to write on a white sheet, pausing every so often to tilt his head as if listening intently. “What’s that?” he’d say. “Of course I included that.” And later, laughing as he erased a word he had just written, “Okay, okay, you were always the best speller.” He would pause and then go on. “Thanks,” he said at one point, “I’d forgotten that.” It dawned on me as I watched him, hunched over the table, that he was listening to his wife and recording what he heard. His wife was writing her own eulogy.
I didn’t feel her there; she wasn’t there for me. I saw a man talking to a ghost. The thought briefly occurred to me, no doubt from watching
Casper the Friendly Ghost
, to throw flour in the air to see if an outline of a person would emerge out of the drifting white powder. It was at moments like these that I wondered if there was more, if life or consciousness somehow continues, even briefly. Of course, no shape materialized and the eulogy, when delivered by her husband that afternoon, was brilliant and funny and not even close to being “proof” of anything. But still, I wonder what it was I saw that morning.
At its most intense, grief is a kind of madness. We want everything—the bear, the hyena, the panther, strangers on the street, the world itself—to mourn with us. It is impossible to comprehend the separation; grief puts the griever in an altered state. The bereaved walk the halls at night, sometimes they stop eating, they withdraw from the world and search for their beloved in places they used to go together;
they rip their clothes and pull out their hair and throw themselves on their loved ones’ graves. There is an exquisite edge to things: their sorrow is deeper, their joy is sweeter. And, I would add, they are doing exactly what they need to be doing. Depression is a natural stage of mourning—or so we used to think. In the latest edition of the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5), grief is now a categorized mental illness and can be treated accordingly, with medications. Eli Lilly already has an antidepressant, Cymbalta, in clinical trials for “bereavement-related depression.”
In addition to our beliefs, those who work with the dying also bring what they don’t yet know about themselves to the work. We don’t know our toleration level or saturation point; we don’t know what enough will look like. Susan, who burned out after eighteen years on the job, calculated that she had helped over seven hundred people die. She left hospice and went to work in labour and delivery, where she vowed to deliver seven hundred babies before she retired. We don’t know that sometimes we will be profoundly moved by the beauty of a death and other times we will be horrified by the reality.
WHAT WE BELIEVE DIRECTLY INFLUENCES HOW WE ACT. AMONGST
the Salish, the dead are never far away, and the living have a responsibility to remember them and look after them in the spirit world. If they are hungry, they must be fed; if they are cold, clothes must be sent over to them. Ghosts, left unattended or ignored, can be harmful to the living. After a funeral, a burning is often held to cook for the dead and send over their valued possessions. Kindling and newspapers are spread on the ground and cedar planks laid overtop. This “table” is then laid with their favourite foods and set on fire.
It is a surreal feeling to cook for the dead. The day I cooked for my brother, thirty-five years after his death, I felt like a cross between the Galloping Gourmet and Morticia Addams. At the time, my community was largely made up of Salish family and friends, and while I had taken part in a number of burnings, I had never cooked for a family member.
Lena is in her seventies. I first met her at a communal burning in the Upper Squamish Valley, where, from time to time, burnings are arranged when it is believed that the spirits are unsettled—when dogs bark all night long for no reason, or voices are heard singing the old songs up the river. Her daughters take turns driving her to town for groceries and picking her up on the afternoons she plays bingo. Pictures of her twenty-five grandchildren are tacked up on her living room walls, and most days you will find her knitting for one of them with the hand-spun wool she keeps in green garbage bags in her bedroom closet. Lena is also a shaker: the person you go to when there is a problem with ghosts. She and others who belong to the Shaker Church are mediators between the living and the dead. She knows what the dead are craving. At
one burning I attended, a family, whose baby had died many years ago, placed a baby bottle on the table. Boiling milk exploded out of the bottle and shot straight up through the flames, and everybody there knew that the baby had waited a long time to drink.