“most kind and gentle death”

a bit of memento mori

“And thou most kind and gentle death, / Waiting to hush our final breath. / O praise Him! Alleluia! / Thou leadest home the child of God, / And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.”

I will make a bold prediction.  Of all the stanzas in “All Creatures of Our God and King,” if there is one least likely to be sung, this would be it!  After all, who wants to sing about death?

[“Transience of Life” by Daniel Kansky]

Memento mori.  That’s Latin for “remember death,” as in “remember your death.”  It’s a reminder that we are not immortal.  Lest we think memento mori is a walk on the morbid side, here’s something to call to mind: we have an entire season in the church calendar that emphasizes the same thing—Lent.  On Ash Wednesday each of us is directed to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There are plenty of people who don’t like Lent because they think it’s too much of a downer.  I’ve even heard ministers say they feel the same way.

There’s a line in a prayer from our funeral liturgy that has assisted me in pondering my own mortality.  “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live.”  It is a joyful affirmation that we will be with the Lord.  (Having said that, I’m not bearing any wish to die!)

Memento mori comes from the time of the ancient Romans.  We’re told, “It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’—remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.”

Henri Nouwen spoke of a “grateful death.”  “The way we die,” he said, “has a deep and lasting effect on those who stay alive.  It will be easier for our family and friends to remember us with joy and peace if we have said a grateful good-bye than if we die with bitter and disillusioned hearts.  The greatest gift we can offer our families and friends is the gift of gratitude.  Gratitude sets them free to continue their lives without bitterness or self-recrimination.”

I had a professor at seminary who shared some statements that help foster a grateful death.  We have possibly heard this in other contexts.  “Forgive me.”  “I forgive you.”  “Thank you.”  “I love you.”  That works both ways, for the one passing and for those left behind.  No regrets.

[photo by Efren Barahona on Unsplash]

I was fortunate and truly blessed to have that kind of ending with my father.  Banu and I lived in Jamestown, New York at the time.  My dad had been hospitalized several times, but this time, there was more a sense of finality to it.  I got a call from my sister, telling me I needed to come home.  I flew to Nashville the next day.  My brother-in-law picked me up at the airport and drove directly to the hospital.

My mom and sister, and my mom’s pastor, were in the waiting room.  They had already said their goodbyes.  So I went into the ICU and stood next to my dad’s bed.  His eyes were closed.  I held his hand and told him that I loved him.  He didn’t last much longer.  I think he willed himself to hang on until I arrived.  My dad passed away at five in the afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set.  He was welcomed with its orange-red rays.  It was like something from a movie.

There was a certain beauty in his passing.

[November 2009, looking from our front porch. At the time, we lived across the road from a vineyard which was reverting back to nature.]

Though these frail bodies of ours die, we are granted with the indestructible life of the risen and ascended Christ.

“And thou most kind and gentle death, / Waiting to hush our final breath. / O praise Him! Alleluia! / Thou leadest home the child of God, / And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.”

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