It’s been a strange few weeks here in the Land of Pilgrims; there have been several graduations, a sermon, lots of unexpected conversations, and a few deaths. It’s the deaths paired with the graduations that have me pondering because it’s such a beginning/end moment. In working on a funeral for one of the deaths (things they definitely don’t teach you in divinity school, in case you were curious) I had the opportunity to be part of several conversations about the way one dies, and realized anew an important thing.
It is fucking expense to die in the United States of America.
I mean to die as in the fading of a long life, not necessarily to die of a quick and unplanned tragedy like a car accident. And I mean to die, not to be buried; after all, that’s what we have life insurance for, which is its own bizarre horror that we have to ensure our loved ones can afford to do something with the bodies we leave behind because our society can’t bear not to profit off of such a simple thing as returning us to the earth in some way. I mean to die; to grow old and infirm, to have a body that shuts down system by system, to be mortal. I mean to have the cost of medication, and nursing homes, and people to help you close out your earthly affairs, and people to ensure your stuff goes to the right people when you aren’t there to oversee it. I cannot afford that. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to afford that.
Tied up in this is the awareness that I do not have children or a spouse, and it is highly improbable I’ll ever have the former and uncertain about the latter. Despite our American individualism, our society is in no way built to accommodate that. Where once it may have been the community to take in those without biological family, now it is often the State—because what friend can afford the cost of a nursing home? Of medical care so that dying doesn’t hurt the whole way down? I can’t afford to die by measure of people, either, not just money.
This is a sobering thing, not because I’m scheduled to die anytime soon (to my knowledge, at least, though human knowledge of such things is essentially non-existent) but because I am old enough now to see these possibilities. My body is beginning its falling apart, as mortal things do, and I can feel that in a way I couldn’t in my 20s. I don’t bounce back as easily as I once did. And my friends (most of whom are 20 or 30 years older than I) are teaching me about the quiet shift from the autumn to the winter of one’s life. It is the worst to think I will outlast them, although they would be outraged and furious if I did not.
I’m preaching in a couple of weeks on Psalm 130, a psalm of hope for the ending of spiritual dark times, and it’s just been interesting to have that in my mind while saying goodbye to these acquaintances whose bodies simply stopped, these people who could not stop dying in order to afford it. Scripture has no language I know of to deal with the modern cost of dying; it focuses on the spiritual cost, the emotional cost, but the idea of working a lifetime to be able to afford death at its own pace frankly sickens me. I don’t know what to do with that feeling other than entrust you with it, Reader, you who may have watched someone dance awkwardly through the system with a fistful of precious dollars and a body that no longer obeyed, you who may still think you’ll live forever, you who might also have no one guaranteed to sit with you at the end.
What a society we have built that the natural aspect of our bodies ceasing to be should ever be counted an encumbrance, an annoyance, a cost of which to be afraid. Death itself is the simplest thing, but how much there is before it! How can we say we are not a fallen race when we profit from pain and make wretched the process none of us can outrun?
God, in Your mercy, be with the poor who never lived comfortably and now cannot afford to die comfortably, either. Be with the lonely who have no one to walk with them until they see You. God, in Your mercy, help us learn to let each other die in dignity, as fully human as You envision us to be.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy. (Psalm 130:1-2, NIV)