Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 30, 2000
Book has moral focus on death
Today, we would rather talk about sex than dying
The Eternal Pity: Reflections on Dying, edited by Richard John Neuhaus, Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000. 181 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
"Victorians of the 19th century talked incessantly about death but were silent about sex," writes Richard John Neuhaus, "whereas today we talk incessantly about sex and are silent about death."
The Eternal Pity: Reflections on Dying is a captivating redress of the modern deficiency. There are hundreds of self-help books on how to cope with death, but this is not one of them.
Written as part of a series of studies focusing on the ethics of everyday life, this is an impressive moral reflection on the everyday experience of dying.
Neuhaus introduces the collection with an autobiographical remembrance of his own near death experience in the form of a brush with colon cancer.
The core of the book is a collection of 26 writings by both believers and agnostics. The contributors are poets, philosophers, novelists, scholars and statesmen. We are offered scintillating portraits of death from a variety of perspectives.
All are written with a moral focus, but do not come across moralistically. Instead, they offer insights, not maxims. They impose no morality, only propose ways of thinking ethically about the reality of death in a variety of contemporary circumstances.
Charles Dickens conveys something of the moral authority of a dying child from his Dombey and Son. Dylan Thomas reminds us "Do not go gentle into that good night." Leo Tolstoy offers poignant intuitions on mortality in a selection from The Death of Ivan Ilych.
The fatality of American poet Sylvia Plath is explored in a chapter from A. Alvarez' The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. C.S. Lewis reflects on his wife's demise in The Experience of Grief and Ralph Abernathy communicates the powerful and eternal spiritual legacy of the black church with recollections from the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. The last selection is a timeless burial liturgy from the Anglican/Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer.
Two millennia ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca reminded us that "our lives are completed in our deaths. That is why I will preach the virtue of a noble death to the end of my days and hope you will do the same. No man can live well who is not prepared to die well."
The art of dying well is an important consideration for our times. We live in a period of history when so much attention is paid to living that there is little thought given to dying.
Neuhaus takes his title from contributor Peter DeVries's fictional telling of this daughter's death, The Blood of the Lamb, which considers the notion of redemptive suffering without minimizing the horrible pain and righteous outrage when a child gets leukemia and dies.
DeVries wrote of "the recognitions of how long, how very long, is the mourner's bench upon which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship - all of us, brief links ourselves in the eternal pity."
We don't tend to spend much time in mourning today. Our funeral liturgies focus on "celebrations of the departed's life." We displace a time for pure sorrow and grief with a determined affirmation of "resurrection hope."
We supply ready answers to questions that have not been given adequate time for mature consideration and response.
The Eternal Pity attempts to slow down the process of dying so that those still living can work through the stages of grieving - denial, anger, bargaining, preparatory grief - to a place of more profound understanding and acceptance.
These selections are not meant to be read quickly or superficially. They demand time and careful attendance. The problem with a book like this is that some readers may dip too swiftly and slightly into it and thus miss much of the benefit that studied and prolonged reflection would provide.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a lecturer in religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)