I have a friend who plays the harp for hospice patients. One of the facilities on her circuit is an Alzheimer’s unit. She brings her harp to the bedside where these lost souls lie confused, physically depleted, dying of cancer or heart disease. Their race is run but they often cannot grasp what is happening to them and often no longer recognize their families.
This afternoon she entered a room where Barbara lay in bed with the TV blaring at full volume. Some well-meaning caregiver or visitor probably thought it would distract her. She lay there with her mouth open–tense, moaning with every breath. Extreme suffering was etched on her features and she gripped the sideboards until her knuckles were white. She wasn’t able to talk. The TV blithely announced: “Warning: The following program contains scenes of surgeons performing operations that may be upsetting to some of our viewers.” My friend immediately flicked it off and began playing a quiet melody. Within the first measure, Barbara had released her grip on the sideboards. By the end of the first song, she had stopped moaning. After half an hour Barbara had relaxed into a steady, calm breathing. Her face was peaceful, her mind at ease.
The Sacrament of Death is a time when caregivers and the dying come together in a spiritual union that can transcend the everyday world we normally inhabit. It’s a person-to-person connection. Music can be transcendent too: the Sacrament of the Arts, a balm to soothe the soul in time of trouble. TVs are intruders, or worse, tormenters.
The second example has been in the news all week : seven men and women dead in their own church, victims of someone they didn’t know, someone filled with hate, someone who was fed a steady diet of rage and ignorance with the help of that technological wonder and curse, the internet.
This is the Dark Side of death, what happens when we fail to teach our children that all life is precious, and death a sacred moment, a spiritual opportunity. Failing to acknowledge the sanctity of death leaves the door open to its worship, to the kinds of death cults that are destroying lives all around the world and have caused this tragedy in Charleston. This is a profound sacrilege. Call it a sacrilege against God if you like, or against humanity: it’s the same in the end.