Lesson 2: Natural Death

Elderly patient in hospitalAnother practical concern related to the resurrection of the body is what modern technology has done to our concept of natural death. Most of our customs about the end of life were based on accepting God’s will for our natural deaths. Suicide was a major sin, sometimes defined as the unforgivable sin, because it rejected this. People welcomed the prolonged dying associated with cancer, because it offered a chance to prepare ourselves and our loved ones for the death. Dropping dead quickly was undesirable.

Today the surgical and medicinal intervention of modern medicine have prolonged life to such an extent that it is hard to know what a natural death is. Doctors delay our dying time after time, using all sorts of procedures to ward off the inevitable.

This leads to new questions, such as:

  • “When is it okay to reject medical treatment?”
  • “Is it permissible to allow quality of life to trump quantity of life?”
  • “Is the cost of dying significant in end-of-life decisions?”
  • “How about loss of cognition and the ability to care for oneself?”
  • “When pain becomes too great, is it permissible to allow an overdose of medication?”
  • “Can my family situation and emotional capacity affect my decisions?”
  • and of course, “Is suicide now acceptable?”

Our society is dealing with these questions, often without much help from our religious and moral traditions. Insurance companies apply cost-benefit criteria in their decisions about funding medical procedures. Hospice services are available when families elect to end healing treatments and use only pain management.

Sometimes the conversation is much quieter. Although suicide became more frequent during my ministry, newspapers and families seldom reported it. Yet in safe gatherings, more and more people acknowledged they had come to accept it in certain situations. In fact, I was amazed how many people in these open conversations reported they had researched methods of suicide just in case they would be needed.

Seldom do these conversations become as angry and judgmental as those dealing with our inability to define when a natural birth takes place. This is probably because we are all involved. Some us never will be married, become pregnant, or find ourselves infertile. All of us will die.

Certainly one way to cope with this new situation is to engage in compassionate and honest conversations as we struggle together for wise and loving answers. I think these conversations must begin with the assumption that our present end of life issues are not so much about accepting a natural death as deciding what actions are permissible in allowing death to happen. And, of course, one of the Christian contributions should be acknowledging the reality of death. Technology might divert us from this truth, enabling us to ignore its challenges and demands most of our lives, but in the end we all are going to die.

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