Tag Archives: death

The End

Some of you may remember the song by the Doors.  Released in January 1967 on their eponymously titled debut album, it was a 12 minute long guided tour through the brilliant yet burning mind of Jim Morrison, the group’s singer and lyricist.  When asked about the song he explained it was written originally about breaking up with his girlfriend.  Maybe so.  But with its explicit references to death, its images of twisting snakes and preternatural lakes, it has always been viewed as an exploration of the end of life, of saying goodbye not for a day, not for a time, but forever.

When I was in college I spent a semester hosting a late Sunday night/early Monday morning (midnight to 5 AM) radio show on the campus station.  Mostly I played Grateful Dead bootlegs and album side long jams from the Dead’s Europe ’72 record or the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East (check out the 23 minute Whipping Post on side 4 if you haven’t heard it in a while).  But every show, precisely at 2:15 in the morning, the station’s phone would ring and a young man would request The End.  Seeing as that he was probably my only listener how could I not comply?  It was a bit eerie, hearing Morrison’s oily voice coming out of the station speakers, no one else around, the campus dark and quiet during those predawn hours.

Of course when you are young death is a distant concept, an idea you are aware of but that for the most part is entirely disconnected from your reality.  Not something that actually happens to you or those you love.  Maybe even a bit romantic, Romeo and Juliet-esque.  But rabbis know differently.  Death is a day to day reality, it is a destination, a shared fate, a deep chasm we all cross.  Death don’t have no mercy in this land, sang the Reverend Gary Davis.  Amen to that, brother.

Of course most of the time we all live in that ‘suspended state of disbelief.’  That we’ll wake up and have a normal day.  That we will walk God’s green earth, feel the breeze, watch spring blossom in its fullness, talk with our neighbors, enjoy time with our family and friends, work, eat, drink, read the paper.  Just a normal day.  What did Garcia sing in Black Peter?  “See here how everything lead up to this day, and its just like any other day that’s ever been.”  And the truth is we have to live like that. You can’t go about your life as if you are Max van Sydow wandering through some Ingmar Bergman film, Death trailing and tracking you every step of the way.  So seize the day you have, live fully, be grateful, enjoy the little moments and the great ones as well.  Walk out from under the shadow and soak up the light.  In today’s vernacular, that is how we (rock and) roll.  All of us, one way or another.

One last thought.  After referencing the Doors, the Allmans, the Dead, it is only appropriate to go all the way back to the words of the Psalmist:  “This is the day that God has made.  Let us exult and rejoice in it.” (Psalm 118:24)  Amen to that as well.


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The Door

Not uncommonly I am called to a room where a person lies dying.  Often they are surrounded by family, and friends may be present as well.  Sometimes a quietness pervades the atmosphere, people speaking in whispers, the rasping breath of a person’s last hours the subtext of all that is going on.  Other times there is laughter, conversation, even song and occasionally prayer.  By and large people are not quite sure what to do, or how to do it.  But they know they have to be there, engaged in this strange waiting for something they both want and do not want to happen.

I believe the dying person knows they are surrounded by people they have shared life with.  Whether they are conscious or not, aware or not, lucid or not, I believe they have, somewhere deep inside, a sense of presence.  I do not know or care whether scientific or medical research supports this.  It is what I believe to be true, and it brings meaning to these moments.  Otherwise, why be there at all?  I suppose that question can be answered by saying, ‘it is for us.’  We are there to know that we were there, that we’ve fulfilled our duty,  that we’ve been loyal and good sons, daughters, spouses, siblings, parents.  

But also we are there for them.  They are not alone, even in their last moments.  They are loved, touched, felt for, cared for.  Those moments are hard, enormously so.  They can be painful, bitter, heart-wrenching, but at the same time filled with great relief.  They are also sacred, as sacred as any moments we share with others on this earth.  Somehow God is there in the last, gentle, exhale.

In my own mind I use the following image to understand those moments, to access them.  There is a door.  Closed, imposing, heavy.  And the dying person has a task, a goal – to somehow get through that door to the other side.  We also have a task.  To help them there, to bring them, when their own strength has failed or is failing, to that door.  Perhaps to lean them against it, to bring their hand to the grain of the wood, to whisper in their ear that the door is right before them, and that they can open it, and walk through.  We can’t go with them.  Not yet, anyway, though our time also will come.  But we can bring them all the way there, just to the very edge, to the opening.

Then comes the hardest task of all.  To let them go, and allow them to open the door, walk through that liminal space, and leave us behind.  It is what we do for them, the very last thing we can do for them.  And only we can do it.  Finally, ultimately, they will go through, and they are gone.  The door closes, and we turn away from the mystery back to the sunshine of a new day.

I love the image of a great ship leaving the port, sails full, heading out to the open seas.  She reaches a point far on the horizon, and those watching her from the port cry out – she is gone!  But across the deep and vast water there is another port, another shore.  And just as she disappears from our sight, those on the other side suddenly see her spring into view.  There she is!  Here she comes!  She has crossed to the other side.  May the four winds blow her safely home.  

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