Waiting for death with an expert

column_temple_artemis_ephesos_bm_sc1206_n33One would think it might be a challenge to write about the subject of death and dying without discussing religion and faith. Of course, the absence of religion or faith in the subjects’ lives could limit the range or scope of the discussion. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t part of the story.

That seems to be the case in this excellent Los Angeles Times piece by Thomas Curwen on “Waiting for death, alone and unafraid,” as the headline states. The article profiles Edwin Shneidman, a well-known expert in the area of suicide and the death of human beings, as he waits to die.

The article is timely for a couple of reasons. The state of Washington recently made effective a new law on assisted suicide. News organizations are responding by researching the subject that the LAT article points out that people don’t experience their own death, but rather, they experience others’ death. I think it’s fair to classify that as an opinion, depending on one’s perspective of life and death issues.

The science of death and dying is a huge part of the story, but so is religion. Early in the Shneidman profile there is a hint of religion and faith, but that’s about it:

Edwin Shneidman looks at the clock — an hour and a half since turning off the TV and closing his eyes.

“Mrs. Wiggles,” he shouts. He knows that that’s not her name, but he likes the joke.

Sitting in another room, Pauline Dupuy turns down the CD player and puts her Bible and crossword aside. She stands and walks down the hall into his room.

This brief mention of the Bible is interesting because Shneidman is Jewish. One can only speculate though what type of Bible Dupuy (one of Edwin Shneidman’s caregiver) had with her crossword puzzle.

Later in the article, Vernette Elijio, another caregiver, helps readers understand more about Edwin Shneidman’s view on religion and faith, but it’s almost an incidental part of the story:

The meaning of death is loss and sadness and inevitability. On the wall above the bed, he has hung a print by Breughel that covers a crack in the plaster. Here an army of skeletons wages war against humanity, and compared to the Chagall overhead, it’s a bleak and macabre picture of the final hour that without angels or signs of salvation is unremittingly godless.

The other day Vernette said he was blessed. True enough, he thought, but not quite right, not blessed. On a napkin on the TV tray he scribbled down the Greek prefix, eu, for good, and then through association and sound, fell upon doria. This is what he does. He coins words, and this would be the word for his good fortune. Eudoria. He spoke it out loud: gratitude without an object, no one to credit, no one to thank. No Jesus, no Yahweh, Muhammad, Vishnu or Buddha.

Because he believes life isn’t contingent upon a god or upon prayers. There is no heaven, no hell. Happiness lies in the here and now and the satisfaction of living a good life without religion or myth to guide you. He takes nothing away from others’ beliefs. He just prefers “Moby-Dick” to the Bible.

Death is quite simple. Life is more mysterious, and he never tires of its wonderments: How he — a Jew at that — survived the war, how he and a girl from the corn country of Illinois fell in love and married and had four children and such a long and happy life.

Yes, religion likely won’t ever headline a story like this, but I believe the level of attention it received is appropriate. It does raise the interesting point that religion is almost obligatory in a story about death and dying, even if the subject wants nothing to do with faith or a belief in a life of some sort after death. Perhaps that is responding to the readers’ desire to know, or just something innate about human nature. Either way, I’m glad it came up here because it gives us a fuller understanding about a fairly significant individual at a captivating point in his life.

Image of Thanatos, a personification of death and mortality in Greek mythology, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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  • FW Ken

    Interesting story that hints at many wonderful things in this man’s life – friends who visit, loving sons who call, recognition of his expertise that still brings him the privilege of helping others – while the weight of physical decline, the loss of his wife, and the knowledge he has of death tempt him to despair.

    But is that Shneidman’s voice? or the writer Curwen’s? By the end of the story, I was a little confused about who I was hearing.