"Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Benjamin Franklin, 1789.
The last phrase of Benjamin Franklin's sentence, quoted above, is a well known and often quoted phrase when we speak of the certainties of life. It is interesting to note that it is combined with his reflections on the United States Constitution at the time of its composition and adoption. Two hundred and twelve years later our Constitution has indeed stood the short test of time, with a few amendments here and there. And Franklin was right about death and taxes, for they too are still very present parts of our lives.
We talk and complain about taxes quite a bit. We ponder the feasibility of a "tourist head tax," a sales tax, a state income tax and we suffer both the benefits and the inconveniences of taxes daily. I would wager that one would be hard-pressed to find a day when the word "tax" does not appear in this and almost every other newspaper and on the local and national news. In fact, now that we are being granted a "tax relief" check this year, even the merchandisers are using the word "tax" in their advertising.
Yes, we spend a lot of time talking about taxes. We pay them, we save for them and at some time we reach an age where we become exempt from some forms of taxation.
On the other hand, as certain as it may be we find that we do not talk nearly as easily or as openly about death. At the time our Constitution was written death was considerably more a part of everyday life. Often people died at a younger age, and when measles, chicken pox or flu and pneumonia epidemics swept cities, entire families often died. At that time death was as much a part of the family ritual as birth and marriage. People were cared for in their homes, and when the end of life came they were surrounded by their friends, families and loved ones. After death the bodies were laid out in the parlor and visitations were held in the homes. As little as people knew then about the cause of death, they perhaps understood the reality of it more than we do today.
Through the years as technology and science brought about changes, we started going to the hospital when critical illnesses arose. The changes in medical care have helped prolong life and cure cancers and pneumonia. In many ways our lives are better due to this technology. People have been cared for in hospitals by medical staff, many of whom are kind and compassionate people. But they are not family. And it is not home.
In recent years a new movement has grown that provides compassionate hospitality for people in the end stages of life. The hospice movement provides in-home care or facilities that are more home-like where friends and family members can be present during the last hours of life. The same kind and compassionate health care workers are present, but in a different manner.
It is not just the way we care for people that has improved however. Once again we are able to talk about death with our friends and families. And in many ways we are enabled to make some choices about what kind of care we want and where we want that care to be provided. When we are silent about the important things in life, such as life and death and quality of life at the time of death, we deny ourselves the right to dignity and comfort.
Last fall PBS ran a series hosted by Bill Moyers on death and dying and in many churches, organizations and homes people began to talk about death with one another and with their families. During the month of August that same series, "On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying," is being re-broadcast on KTOO TV each Sunday afternoon at 1:30.
The time to talk about these issues is before we each need to talk about them. Readers of this column represent every faith background in the community. I am certain that we will not all agree with everything in the series. Certainly I had problems with parts of it when I viewed it last fall. At times it was too tough to watch, and at other times it was too moving to turn off. But whether or not we agree with the options provided, this series should allow each of us to start talking about death.
For those of us on this journey called "life," death is inevitable. So let's talk.
Kim Poole is the minister at the Jubilee Community United Church and has been a resident of the community since 1993.