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Sunday, 14 November 2010

What is a good death?

Wendell Berry is a joy to read whether it be his essays, poetry or his novels. I have been rereading this week That Distant Land: The Collected Stories (Counterpoint, 2004) that being together all his stories about the small town of Port William in Kentucky.

This is a wonderful collection of stories that span nearly a century and encompass a variety of themes and emotions. Helpfully the contents pages gives a date for the story and locates it chronologically in relation to the other novels about Port William. 

One story in particular moved me to tears and set me thinking about the question: what is a good death? The issue is not academic as I am currently watching a family close to me try and accompany some one close to them trough the end of his life.

In "Fidelity" Berry explores what faithfulness means as we accompany someone in their dying. Burley Coulter is seriously ill and his family and friends who want to do something to express their car and concern take him to the Doctor who has him rushed off to hospital in the nearest city. There he is hooked up to all the machines and drips, the technology that expresses the predominant way we express our care for those who are dying. His family and friends quickly come to the conclusion that they have made a mistake.

When they had returned on yet another visit and found the old body still as it had been, a mere passive addition to the complicated machines that kept it minimally alive, they saw finally that in their attempt to help they had not helped but only complicated his disease beyond their power to help. And they thought with regret of the time when the thing that was wrong with him had been simply unknown and there had been only it and him and them in the place they had known together. Loving him, wanting to help him they had given him over to "the best of modern medical care" - which meant as they now saw they had abandoned him. (p.376)
 Berry is asking here, are there other ways of expressing faithfulness to the dying beyond that of the technology of medicine.

Berry as he unfolds the story is clearly not convinced that dependence on technology is the only possibility for a good death. But how is Burley to escape from the clutches of the hospital and the medical profession?

Burley's son Danny determines that faithfulness to his father requires that he be removed from the hospital which he proceeds to do that night without seeking the permission of the medical staff.

Danny's presence with Burley during the final hours of his life, his care for him and his burial in the woods where Burley has been most at home throughout his life is told with a restraint that is all the more powerful for its disciplined description of that presence and care. Berry's description of Burley's death is intertwined with the story of his community's support for Danny and approval of what they assume he has done and is doing against the forces of law and order's attempt to track down Burley.

In balance against the grief of Burley's death the other strand of the story has moments of humour and drama as the detective who supposed to be asking the questions finds himself under question as the community of Burley's friends gather to in a strange way give witness to Burley's life and why his disappearance is in keeping with the way he lived his life. In the course of that discussion Berry has the opportunity to ask some questions about whose interests are in fact being served by the specialisation of medicine particularly in the time of dying. The exchanges between Wheeler Catlett the community solicitor and the somewhat confused detective left me at times jolting between grief and an almost spluttering guffaw.

Berry too is no mean theologian. Wheeler Catlett takes his cue from Augustine in his discussion with the detective regarding the proper use of the law.

"Well anyway " Detective Bode said, "all I know is that the law has been broken, and that I am hereto serve the law".

"But my boy, you don't eat or drink the law, or sit in the shade of it, or warm yourself by it, or wear it, or have your being in it. The law exists only to serve."

"Serve what?"
"Why, all the things that are above it. Love."(p.418)
Brian Volck a medical practitioner who is himself no mean theologian, in his discussion of this story, comments that:
"Wheeler Catlett know something that his interlocutor, Detective Bode could not: that things are never as discrete and separable as we wish, that autonomy and specialisation, for all their productive power, cause apart from an embodied regard of a contextual whole. ... Wheeler - who chides Bode after the detective angrily accuses Danny Branch of burying Burley Coulter "somewhere in these end-of-nowhere godforsaken hill and hollows" - also knows something about finding grace and holiness even in the end-of-nowhere places of the created world. As Berry notes elsewhere:
There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places

Like a broken clock Detective Bode could not help but be right on occasion. Danny did in fact bury Burley in the hills the old man loved. Danny, who understands the landscape as anything but "godforsaken" returns after the burial to a Port William membership with "the aspect and the brightness of one who had borne the dead to the grave, and filled the grave to the brim, and received the dead back to life." ("Mr Berry Goes to Medical School" p. 46 in Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven's Earthly Life edited by Joel James Shuman & Roger Owens University Press of Kentucky, 2009)
To return to the issue of dying well. For Berry this is not something that we can do alone, it is not a project arising from our autonomy as an individual charting our own life. Dying well requires that we be part of a community who can sustain us in our vulnerability and carry us with their presence when we can no longer walk by ourselves or even articulate clearly our intentions. We need a community who can remember who we were and who we have become so that they can express that appropriately in our dying.

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