Category Archives: Euthanesia

Lessons from the Plague; What Monty Python Can Teach us as Helpers…

Republished with Permission from Thanatology Café.

There is a great deal to be said about our healthcare and deathcare industries in the US, they are similar in many respects and exhibit similar functional flaws in a general sense. In the humanectomized materialist consumerism driven culture in which we live, the corporations have reduced most of us to human means to a corporate end. Most of US humanity has been dehumanized to the level of mere consumers. This is not a new development, however, and can be read in many quasi-prophetic sources.

In a recent conversation with a licensed funeral director and funeral home operator, who read our article on Nicholas Facci and Newcomer Funerals and Cremations (March 26, 2017), we discussed among other things the funeral chains’ exploitation of the demise of our traditions. We continue that discussion here together with some and some interesting anecdotes about the Albany County Coroner’s office.

After that discussion, I couldn’t help but think about one of the many hysterical scenes in the Monty Python film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or of the grim portrayal by Dr John B. Huber of the Manchurian Plague (20th c.) and the Black Plague (14th c.).

Monty Python’s “Holy Grail”

The scene takes place during the Black Plague in medieval somewhere, and opens with the sounds of strange medieval music. Discordant and sparse images. Wailings and groanings. Close up of contorted face upside down. A leg falls across it. Creaking noise. The bodies lurch away from and scene pans out to reveal they are amongst a huge pile of bodies on a swaying cart that is lumbering away from the viewer. It is pulled by a couple of ragged, dirty emaciated wretches, the cart drivers. Behind the cart walks another large man, a slightly more prosperous Porter, wearing a black hood and looking rather sinister. The Porter is carrying an emaciated old man over his shoulder who is still moving, and protests “I’m not dead!” The dialogue goes something like this:

The scene: (The Porter carrying an old man slung over his shoulder, approaches the cart and the cart driver…)
Cart Driver: Bring out your dead!
Porter: Here’s one!
Cart Driver: Ninepence.
Old man: I’m not dead!
Card Driver: What?
Porter: Nothing…Here’s your ninepence.
Cart Driver: Er…He says he’s not dead!
Porter: Yes he is.
Old Man: I’m not.
Cart Driver: He isn’t.
Porter: Well he will be soon. He’s very ill.
Old Man: I’m getting better!
Porter: No you’re not. You’ll be stone-dead in a moment.
Cart Driver: I can’t take him like that; it’s against regulations!
Old Man: I don’t want to go on the cart!
Porter: Oh don’t be such a baby.
Cart Driver: I can’t take him like that!
Old Man: I feel fine!
Porter: Oh, do us a favor…
Cart Driver: I can’t.
Porter: Well, can you hang around a couple of minutes? He won’t be long…
Cart Driver: I promised I’d be at the Robinson’s. They’ve lost nine today.
Porter: Well, when’s your next round?
Cart Driver: Thursday.
Old Man: I think I’ll go for a walk.
Porter: (To the Old Man) You’re not fooling anyone, you know! (to the Cart Driver) Look. Isn’t there something you can do?
Old Man: (Singing) I feel happy, I feel happy!
The Cart Driver looks at the Porter for a moment. Then they both do a quick furtive look up and down the street. The Cart Driver very swiftly brings up a club and hits the Old Man on the head. (Out of shot but the singing stops after a loud bonk noise.)
Porter: Ah! Thanks very much! (Handing over the ninepence) See you on Thursday!
(Tossing old man onto the bodies on the cart)
Cart Driver: That’s all right! See you on Thursday.

(View the clip on YouTube)

While transcribing the dialogue I thought to myself how prophetic this 1975 spoof was.  More than 40 years later we can watch this clip and it sends cold shivers down your spine. Back then what was morbidly hilarious has become stark reality for us today.

“Bring out your dead!” Newcomer Funerals and Cremations TV Ads.

Cryptkeeper Newcomer Ad

There you are, sitting enjoying a snack thinking “Life is good!” And Warren “Ren” Newcomer, the cadaver-like founder of the Newcomer Funeral Services Group based in Wichita, Kansas, appears on your television screen. He’s the 21st century version of the Cryptkeeper and plays the part really well. He looks like an embalming gone awry and oozes a false compassion and insincere expression that makes you want to choke on your chips. Here’s a guy who has made millions exploiting the deaths of loved ones and doing his part to destroy our death traditions while grinning like a corpse on the way to the bank.  Newcomer Funeral Services Group has two locations in the Albany, New York, area, and has a presence in some 10 states. There are other similar funeral chains, Walmart-type factory funeral companies that have bought up private funeral businesses, cemeteries and crematoriums across the country. They operate under names like Service Corporation International (SCI), Dignity Memorial™, StoneMor Partners, Precoa, and of course, Newcomer Funerals and Corpse Disposal. What their advertising and marketing messages say to us, despite the actors and the phony compassion, is what Monty Python is teaching: “Bring out your dead!” Toss them on the cart and we’ll see you on Thursday (and don’t forget your checkbook or credit card).

“I’m Not Dead!” The Office of the Albany County Coroner declares a woman dead but she revives in the morgue

In New York Times article “They Said She Was D.O.A., But Then the Body Bag Moved” (Robert D. McFadden, 11/18/94) The author reports that Albany County Coroner Philip Furie and  Paramedics allegedly “found no heartbeat, no pulse, no breath or other signs of life, and the coroner declared her officially dead.”  So they “ zipped Mildred C. Clarke,  into a body bag, took her to the morgue at the Albany Medical Center Hospital and left her in a room where corpses are kept at 40 degrees, pending autopsies or funerals. About 90 minutes later, the chief morgue attendant went in to transfer her to a funeral home. “ The attendant noticed some movement in the body bag, unzipped it and found that Mildred was still breathing. She was moved to intensive care and treated but the case has never been explained. The L.A. Times reports later that “Mildred Clark, the 86-year-old woman who spent 90 minutes in a morgue cooler last week after mistakenly being declared dead, died Wednesday of undisclosed ailments, a hospital spokesman said…. Albany Medical Center Hospital spokesman Richard Puff said Clark’s family had requested that the cause of death be withheld.” Any guesses as to the cause of death?

According to the article, “Albany is the only major city in New York State that does not have a medical examiner, an official who is trained in forensic pathology, and this would be a real advantage,”  The office of the coroner is  a relic still found  in many American cities. Albany elects four coroners to declare deaths and investigate their  causes. They have no medical training but are required to attend a “death investigation course.”  The coroners are expected to evaluate crime scenes and suspicious deaths, but they have no medical training.

We’re investigating some leads relating to the performance of the Albany County Coroners, and will report on our findings in a future article. We suspect that the Albany County Coroner isn’t very popular among local funeral directors. But Hey! this is Smalbany, isn’t it? There’s a job for every misfit in the Albany Democratic Machine, isn’t there?

“Look. Isn’t there something you can do? Ah! Thanks very much! See you on Thursday.” Inconvenience of the Dying Process.

We’re so very busy and so much in a rush. Why? Because our handlers tell us we are. We’ve lost our sense for distinguishing what is nice and what is necessary. We no longer have to think. Advertisers tell us what we need. Marketers tell us what to ask for. Government tells us how to live. Churches tell us how to die. Emails tell us we need to Hurry! and to Rush! because time is running out to buy a certain something. Hell! We don’t even die in peace. Hospitals transform us into cyborgs with tubes and electrodes at every available spot, and when all else fails, they still want to provide “billable services.” Only when you have had enough watching the technology fail do you scream STOP! Even when the so-called healthcare team has the good sense to admit that they can’t do anything more, they recommend shipping what’s left of mom or dad to hospice. And so at hospice the saga continues. When death finally occurs, whether it’s helped along or drags out to the end, we are still in a hurry, still have other things to do. But yet again, the materialist consumerism we are addicted to has the solution for immediate relief of any inconvenience, even death. There are customized death packages for every budget ranging from direct burial or direct cremation to the “traditional funeral.” Just ask for the Detailed Price List required by the FTC’s Funeral Rule and prepare to be nickel-and-dimed. You have abandoned the traditional funeral home with the family funeral director and have opted for the Walmart funeral chain, the factory funeral service provider. And you deserve everything you get. Sorry but it’s true.

We’ve all read about states like Oregon and Washington that have legislated physician-assisted suicide (PAS), euthanasia in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. We all know about the hospice movement that has degenerated into another instance of corporate exploitation of death and the demise of the family. So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Monty Python prophesied the hastening of death movement. True, we no longer use a club to help the dying along; we’ve become much more refined in the 21st century. We now use chemicals and drugs. Or, if we’ve made mom or dad into an ICU cyborg, we simply remove the respirator, inject some morphine and “Ah! Thanks very much. See you on Thursday” at the viewing. We’ve come a long way into our degeneration!

Get the shocking truth about Service Corporation International (SCI) here.

We really have to chuckle when we read such crapola like “Service Corporation International is dedicated to compassionately supporting families at difficult times, celebrating the significance of lives that have been lived, and preserving memories that transcend generations, with dignity and honor. (SCI site at , last accessed on April 6, 2017). If you’re ready to believe that operations like SCI or Newcomer, corporations with their eyes on the bottom line, with their programmed funeral directors and staff operating on a corporate agenda, are there to do what the family funeral home once did, you’re already brain dead. SCI is constantly being sued, settling, or paying out huge judgments resulting from their mistakes. But when you’re making billions, who cares. The living keep dying; sky’s the limit! Get on the cart.


A bit of history: In 1962, Robert L. Waltrip, a licensed funeral director who grew up in his family’s funeral business, founded Service Corpration International. SCI started out as a small network of funeral homes and cemeteries in the Houston, Texas, area.

SCI gradually increased its offshore presence, and it continued to acquire business interests in North America. Since the late 1990s the US and Canadian marketplaces a  saturated battleground of competing companies intent on buying up and exploiting the deathcare business sector. SCI, In the course of the melee, Alderwoods Group and Stewart Enterprises emerged as the three principal companies in the resulting funeral corporation industry. As of December 31, 1999, SCI owned and operated 3,823 funeral service locations, 525 cemeteries, 198 crematoria and two insurance operations located in 20 countries on five continents. In 1999, SCI introduced Dignity Memorial, the first transcontinental brand offering deathcare goods and services in North America. By consolidating its network of funeral homes and cemeteries under a single brand, SCI expected that they could create a recognizable and marketable brand image. In 2000, poor market conditions forced SCI to reevaluate operations. While foreign operations had once shown promise, nearly 70 percent of SCI’s revenue was generated by operations in the United States and Canada. The company decided to divest many of its offshore businesses, in addition to many North American funeral homes and cemeteries. The UK arm now operates as Dignity PLC.


“I don’t want to go on the cart!” How we treat our dying; how we treat ourselves.

Monty Python presents an interesting scenario at a time when Jessica Mitford was enjoying the fruits of her muckraking book, “American Way of Death,” (1963), and the funeral home chains and funeral service factory corporations were reaching their peak of exploitation when Mitford’s “American Way of Death Revisited” was poshumously published (1998). Monty Python had it right. But we all laughed our way straight to hell.

 

J.B. Huber MD: “Psychology of Grave Epidemics”
(Med. Times, 1911)

Moving from a 1975 comedy spoof we can cite a remarkable article that appeared in the December 1911 journal, Medical Times, by John B. Huber MD. Dr Huber writes about the great Manchurian Plague (1910-1900), and compares it to the Black Plague (1347-1351). I’d like to quote some passages from that 1911 medical journal article. See if you can draw any parallels with our 21st century society.

Yet business was conducted as ordinarily—by those still alive; and the stroller “viewing the manners of the town,” would hardly realize from the superficial aspect of things, that a dreadful scourge was gradually but surely destroying its people. Yet the plague had, from November last up to this New Year’s Day, done for one-fourth of the twenty thousand inhabitants of that community; and it was then expected that more than half the remainder would be doomed before the plague would expend its energies.

On this festive New Year’s Day in that Manchurian town, the mounted policeman’s horse had its tail brightly decorated with green and red streamers; a shop keeper burst merrily out upon a group in the street, scaring them with a bunch of firecrackers which he flung up into the air. A green house was decorated with bright red, gilt lettered posters, festive banners and green paper flags, all by way of celebration. Next door the yellow poster of the Sanitary Bureau was in evidence, sealing up that house, and marking it unclean; “eight dead, two dying,” are the tally with which it began the New Year. (Huber p. 353)

Sounds like our modern lifestyle: death looms around us but we just continue partying, ignoring it, until we have to go down that dark alley and have no choice but to confront the darkness, the gloom. Manchuria in the early 20th century doesn’t seem much different from Troy or Albany in the early 21st century.

“Eight dead, two dying.” Sound’s like Monty Python’s Cart Driver, “They’ve lost nine today.” Or like the handoff report in an ICU. Whether you’re tallying plague victims or scheduling body collections, or handing off your charges to the next shift, the language used tells it all: We’ve all become mere garbage bags laying about until we get collected, transported, disposed of. Don’t you think there should be more to the final chapter of a life lived, and the received legacy?

Plague: carting the dead, by Moynet
A cart with the dead.

“The carters that loaded the dead on the wagons and took them away would not walk, but sat companionably beside the corpses.”  (Huber p. 353)

And so do we in the 21st century. The 21st century carters load up the dead and take them away; the bereft sit complacently beside the corpses. One would hope that we have advanced a bit farther along than our ancestors, that we would observe the traditions handed down to us, perform the grief and mourning rituals so important to psychospiritual healing. Some of us do. Most haven’t a clue, and rely on the bean counters to guide them.

Direct Burial: Coffinless in Pits

“Nine hundred were buried coffinless in pits; above two thousand frozen corpses, in a most desolate stillness, awaited burial near the town, in a heap a quarter-mile long. Some coffins were in evidence, standing upright, without covers, the bodies erect in them; here an arm stuck upright out of its receptacle; there a naked leg protruded. Near the pile of which he was soon to become a member, was seen an outcast kneeling, worshipping, half falling in his weakness, as he bowed his head and rose again, before the grave of an ancestor.´ (Huber p. 353)

On the one hand we get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes at one of the funeral home chains or factory-funeral homes as described by a young licensed funeral director now employed by Newcomer Funerals and Cremations. On the other hand, we are presented with a feeble suffering wretch who, despite his own suffering, has not forgotten his obligations in continuing his bonds with the dead, one of whom he shall soon be. It’s a rich, telling image; in a sense very real but very metaphorical. Once you create that image in your mind, you’ll not soon forget it.

“[T]he plague was coming to its most dreadful stage, for it was now destroying the family affections…Thus, most gruesomely, does the twentieth century repeat the fourteenth.”  (Huber p. 354)

While Dr Huber is describing a real epidemic, the Manchurian Plague of 1910-11, and describes the Black Death of the 14th century that swept away a substantial part of medieval Europe’s population, we are faced with a more insidious plague that is robbing us of our core values to family and kin, both living and dead. Huber, a medical man, calls this the “most dreadful stage” because it was destroying the core of the culture, the bonds of family. I’d guess he’d probably go further to say that the 21st century repeats both the 14th and the 20th, but that our plague is materialist consumerism promoted by greed and the catastrophe of so-called individual choice.

“Next to the fear of death was the fear of desertion.” (Huber p. 354)

Early 20th century China had very strong family ties, ties of responsibility, filial piety. This sense of duty was the basis of the veneration of ancestors, a form of continuing bond with the dead, similar to the West’s veneration of its sacred dead, the saints. Huber is describing a fear of abandonment, of “desertion” to be on a par with the fear of death. In clinical practice, whether in the nursing home or the hospital setting, or hospice, we find persons who are ready to confront death but fear doing it alone; they have a fear of desertion. We might extend that fear of desertion to the bereaved, as well, but their desertion is far more subtle than committing the dying to some remote corner of the medical ICU or to a hospice facility. The bereaved are not only saddled with their loss but also with the daunting confrontation with the corporate funeral director with his endless list of goods and services with their respective prices. All is done with the sensitivity of an embalming trocar. What ever happened to the compassionate family funeral home and its director, frequently assisted by his family.

Black-Death-Plague-Doctor-Clothing

“Who, then, would be so foolhardy as to throw good life after bad, by nursing a dying friend, when the Black Death lay per chance in his last sign, in the farewell pressure of his hand. So the nearest and dearest ties were dissolved, the calls of kindred and humanity neglected; the sick left to die and to be carted to the grave by hirelings…” (Huber p. 354)

Indeed, who today would be so traditional as to give up his or her self-time to care for a dying relative or friend, especially one who is in the disturbing phases of life’s end. Most persons are ambivalent about the whole process: On the one hand they look to the death as something unbearable in its finality; on the other hand they just want to get it over with. The death occurs and the bereaved are fed the 20th century psychological pablum that their connection with the dead person has ended, that they have to get on with a productive life. That was Freud’s teaching: You had to cut your ties with the dead. Quite the opposite of that in the East or in traditional societies, and quite a contrast to what we now teach in the 21st century. We now teach continuing bonds with the dead, a transcendence phenomenon, meaning-making, that the living’s relationship with the deceased is not only normal and healthy, it’s encouraged! We do it in the rituals of the support group or in ways like the AIDS quilt. We may do it differently than the poor wretch venerating his ancestors described by Huber but we nonetheless do it. We do it because it’s the human thing we do. But it’s also so very inconvenient for the chains and the corporations; they don’t encourage humanity, they encourage production and consumerism. Take three days and get over your grief. Back to work with you. See you on Thursday.

“Boccaccio attests vividly how the human organism in all its phases—physical, spiritual, moral, intellectual—deteriorated in stamina and in co-ordination. Compassion, courage and the nobler feelings were found in but few; whilst cowardice, selfishness and ill-will, with the baser passions in their train asserted their supremacy. In place of virtue, which had been driven from the earth, wickedness everywhere reared its rebellious standard and succeeding generations were consigned to her baneful tyranny.”  (Huber p. 354)

Boccaccio here is describing the pitiful demise of humanity in the Middle Ages. We could describe the present state of affairs without changing a word, couldn’t we? Take a moment and go to the Newcomer Funeral Service Group or their Albany/Latham websites for Newcomer Funerals and Cremations and read their ridiculous claims of what they offer the bereaved. Go to the Service Corporation International site and read about their “compassion”, their caring, their sensitivity to the needs of the bereaved. That’s worse than General Motors telling you they care about your lower back pain. Yet how many consumers actually swallow that sordid brew. These factory-funeral corporations aren’t making billions because no one’s falling for the marketing hype, the sales pitches pressuring the bereaved in their most difficult moments to sign and buy. We say look at the lawsuits and how much they’re paying out for failing the bereaved, for causing the bereaved more suffering than they had ever bargained for.

“[t]he Black Death “seemed to arise the worst passions of the human heart, and to dull the spiritual sense of the soul.” Who would think, declared Papon, “that in the midst of horrors so suitable (it would seem) for extinguishing the passions, there were two—libertinism and greed—which should be carried to so high a degree!” (Huber p. 354)

Indeed! Who ever thought that liberties, individualism, choice could lead to the present situation we find ourselves in. How is it that human beings in their worst possible moments should be exposed to the worst possible motivations and motives of modern mankind: libertarianism and greed. Those very libertarians preaching choice and liberty are deeply rooted in the horrible hypocrisy that such choice and liberty give life to. The plague that is upon us now in the 21st century is not a plague that is carried by fleas, and it’s not a plague that kills in five days. Our 21st century plague is called materialist consumerism, market economy, capitalism and it’s carried by fellow human beings, and it kills insidiously but totally in mind, body and spirit. There’s no way to discern with any certainty the extent of the infection but one thing is certain, there’s no effective vaccine, and most people would not want to undergo the cure.

One woman was married five times in one day—four of the bridegrooms having been buriers of the dead, dressed in the clothes they had stripped from the bodies of the deceased.” (Huber p. 354)

Huber describes the total depravity of the people who now have lost all sense of morality and values, and who now in a devil-may-care attitude of let’s be merry because we’re dead anyway. He describes a woman who marries five men in succession who are carried away just as quickly. She describes those who profit from the belongings and property of the dead, whom they have stripped. For all of Jessica Mitford’s muckraking, she would have had a picnic with this line, somehow drawing a connection between these “buriers of the dead” and those “dressed in clothes they had stripped from the bodies of the deceased.”

Like horrors disgraced many other communities. He: is furnished another example—such as are so deplorably frequent in history of how fanatical frenzy, associated with hatred and the play of the baser passions, will work powerfully upon nations and peoples to the utter exclusion of the restraints of reason, of law, or of any other wholesome factor. And the greater part of those who, by their education and rank, might have been assumed to raise the deterrent voice of reason, themselves led on the savage mob to murder and to plunder the Jews. (Huber p. 355)

Throughout history, Satan has always been the “other”; humankind has never really been able to see its true self, it’s never been able to accept its shadow side. Huber is describing the desperate search for a cause of the plague and, then as now, hatred and baser passions take control, and the necessary scapegoat is found. Whatever doesn’t support the new agenda has to be demonized and sent packing. The dead are not producers, the bereaved are not efficient workers. The dead are distracting the living from their production or consumption. Make the dead and dying disappear, marginalize the traditions, deny grief, exploit the bereaved, then send them back to work. The voice of reason is muted. Our institutions teaching and training the healthcare and deathcare professionals teach technology and business law, not ethics and humanities. The mortuary science programs wouldn’t want to whisper a word against the multinational funeral chains and factory funeral homes, after all they pay the bills and hire the graduates. Why cut your own throat? Why bite the hands that pad your pockets? Of course they won’t hire anyone teaching real deathcare, psychospiritual support, tradition, ritual, healing. The bereaved are, after all, consumers. And you wouldn’t want to keep them from their producing activity for any longer than necessary. Besides, there’s always another body and we have to keep turning over the visitation rooms and chapel. Headquarters wants to see numbers, you know.

That the emotions played a part regarding the plague was observed by many. Those who were terrified were more prone to contract the disease. Those who feared not and were of a cheerful, equable mind were, to the extent at least of that benign influence upon the organism, the more likely to escape. Boccaccio, in writing the Decameron, recognized that pleasant thoughts were the best preventive….Those who despaired threw away their one chance of life; those of sanguine temperament resisted well. (Huber p. 355)

It’s really ironic that I should close with this passage from Huber’s article. Not really. What Huber is saying here is that if you despair you’re lost already. If you become complacent, you’re dead in the water. Those who step up, ask the questions like: Are you part of a funeral home chain? Are you owned by a funeral service corporation? Are you still family owned? will likely come out on top. It’s not necessarily the pleasant thoughts that get you through any plague, it’s the positive, affirmative thoughts that will prevent you from being taken for a ride. It’s really very true what Huber and Boccaccio are preaching here: You have to have the courage to ask the questions, to look beyond the bells and whistles, to see through the smoke screens, and to assert what you feel you need in your bereavement, not what’s on the corporate menu. The more you do your own thinking and planning the more likely you’ll escape the snares set by the corporate funeral directors. The article may have been written in 1911, over a hundred years ago, but it still has substantial relevance today. I hope to have shown that in my analysis.

Thus are all phases of individual existence mutually and inextricably interrelated: extensive and prolonged deterioration in any one aspect is bound in time to affect perniciously the others in time; such hideous psychic phenomena as are here stated do not obtain in the beginning of any such calamity as the Black Death. But it is the circumstance (and a most pathetic one) that the exercise of the heroic virtues for any lengthy period is contingent upon the maintenance of normal living conditions in general; otherwise the psychic stamina deteriorates, manners become dissolute, morals depraved and consciences debased. (Huber p. 355)

What Dr Huber is saying in this paragraph is that life events are intimately interrelated — I understand these life events to be the basis of our traditions and rituals — and that if we allow any of those events to be exploited or to lapse into irrelevance, all others will suffer as the result. Huber’s phrase “heroic virtues” equates with human values and ethical conduct, which logically rely on “normal” living in our society. When “psychic stamina deteriorates” we have a disturbance in coping and resilience, we forget the ritual and become lost, we forget our obligations, and our whole mindset, our worldview, deteriorates. This, in the 21st century, is what happens when we fall victim to the materialist consumerism of our age and become slave consumers of the corporations and their perverse messages.

And so you have it: From none other than Monty Python’s 1975 depiction of the Black Death, and from a physician writing in 1911 about the pneumonic plague in Manchuria, China, do we have the evidence that really nothing has changed; we have learned nothing. What more can one say?

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New Blog Feature: Articles and Essays

Death Awareness & Education

Death Awareness & Education

Check out the new feature called Articles & Essays. I’m posting my articles and essays for readers who want to read them online or download them.

Try it out and let me know what you think!

Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold

“Passing on” is not just about death; it’s about a cherished legacy

The Ethical Will, A Written Legacy:

A Gift for Generations to Come

Rev. Chaplain Harold W. Vadney M.Div.
Principal Facilitator

“Several months ago I tackled the chore of going through a box of old papers and mementos — we all go through the routine sooner or later and for different reasons — and I came across a greeting card that my grandmother had written to me on high school graduation day, which just so happened to be my 18th birthday; it was an exciting and scary time and a real rite of passage for me. It was the sixties, a time of social and political turmoil; a time of upheaval in society, morals, church and politics and I was going to be right in the thick of it. But was I ready psychologically, spiritually, at all? Now, some 40 plus years later, as I sat cradling the card in my hands and regressing to that day, I read the sacred words inscribed in elegant, careful cursive, now 15 years after my grandmother’s passing, and I realized that she had written me a testament that transmitted her values, her wishes for me, and her tender love. It was in that handwriting and as I read the words I imagined hearing her voice speaking the words to me softly, gently. It was a powerful emotional moment, and I almost choked up recalling my grief at her death. I placed that card in a special place with my most valuable mementos of my life, ensuring that it will never be lost to those coming after me. But for now, it is a special resource, a legacy that I go back to read from time to time, and is something that I will leave to my loved ones as a part of our family’s ethical history. I find myself wondering if my grandmother knew that she was leaving me a gift of such immense value, but the reflections in this rediscovered card is a treasured gift that keeps on giving, especially now she is no longer here to share her wisdom with me.” [Anonymous]

 

The word legacy by definition is “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” It comes from the Latin word legare which means to gather, bring together, collect, and that’s pretty much what we do in a legacy or ethical will: we gather, bring together and collect our thoughts on what is most important to us in our lives. While we might tend to think of our legacy as the property that we’ll some day leave to our loved ones, a legacy goes far beyond the mere material. Like any gift, these legacies should be planned because what they contain and transmit is really timeless; you are transmitting values in this form of legacy, and that fact should not be forgotten. That’s actually the purpose of this legacy: to be remembered for our values. I advocate very vocally for the ongoing process of communicating— orally and in writing, better still through our actions — values and wishes throughout our lives, but once we are gone the written legacy, our ethical will becomes one of the most important heirlooms we can leave behind, a treasured endowment that we can bequeath to our loved ones and to generations to come. As in our story above, a written legacy is something, like the graduation card, that loved ones can return to again and again.imes of transition such as the birth of a child or grandchild, marriages, or the death of a loved one become reflective times and opportunities to review one’s views on the meaning and purpose of life, one’s values and what makes life sacred. These rites of passage are opportunities to enter into dialogue about your faith, beliefs and values and can become a unique legacy to generations to come.

Death is a threatening word. Most everyone reacts to a death with some measure of anxiety and sense of loss no matter what the circumstances, whether sudden and unanticipated, traumatic and violent, or peaceful after a long life lived well, what we call a “good death”. Sometimes the myriad emotions accosting us resolve more quickly and healing sets in, but more often the case that they hang on for some time and persist in some form as we, the bereaved, make the pilgrimage through the uncharted territory of grief, transformation, healing, and transcendence that inevitably sequels death.

Our anxiety is so uncomfortable because it is the sign of hyperawareness, we’ve been ripped from the comfort of our little nest of denial and avoidance. We are forced into awareness and must acknowledge a dread mystery, and inevitability we’d had previously contented ourselves with hiding under wraps; that camouflage of denial that cruelly allowed us to skip through life thinking that there is always time and many more opportunities ahead is finally lifted. When the veil is suddenly raised we become aware that life is fleeting, delicate, relatively brief or “too short”, and that awareness demands our fullest attention and reflection. At those difficult times we may well reflect on the meaning of that life, our own lives, and what remains and what will be remembered. As mortal beings, we have the ability to picture a world, in which we are no longer physically present, and we feel the pain of being sidelined, even forgotten. There’s a saying that goes like this: “We die three times: once when we take our last breath, a second time when our bodies are no longer, a third time when our name is no longer spoken.” It’s that final annihilation, the final erasure that comes when we or our legacy is forgotten. It’s this awesome thought that compels us to find opportunities leave something durable and valuable to those who survive us.

Now the big question is: Whether we will seize this existential opportunity to take advantage the time left to us and to create a thoughtful, valuable, meaningful endowment fashioned with our memories, values, hearts, or will we allow our roots, our lives, our values to become just dust in the winds of time?

To read, download or print the complete essay, click this link: The Ethical Will_a written legacy

"Passing on" doesn't just mean dying; it means leaving a cherished legacy.

“Passing on” doesn’t just mean dying; it means leaving a cherished legacy.

Wounded Helpers: A conversation about death.

Thanatology Café will meet on Saturday, April 9, 2016, at 2:00 p.m. at the RCS Community Library, 95 Main Street, Ravena, New York.


The experience of a death brings with it a host of emotions including anxiety, loss, sadness, depression, and anger, and many more. You need to talk to someone about these experiences but it has to be someone who is nonjudgmental, who knows how to listen, who has had similar experience and wants to share your pain. We call that person a wounded helper.

heart to heart


When my husband was killed, I felt an overwhelming sense of isolation, anxiety, anger. As I made my way through my daily and weekly routines, I felt weighed down by something I really couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I heard about Thanatology Café and decided to give it a try even though I was never one to sit and share in a discussion group. Now I am amazed by how much I look forward to the monthly two-hour gathering and to the occasional “extraordinary” session when I can sit in a room with others who truly understand are want to hear about what I am going through. We wounded healers have met have become so special to each other and share such strength and support. I don’t feel so alone because I realize others suffer, too, but differently. In this room with our facilitator and my companions, I have the courage to face life and death, to talk about it, to heal, and to laugh again.” [Anonymous]


The quote above describes a very common sentiment, one that you may be experiencing when thinking about joining the Thanatology Café group. The death of someone close to you suddenly and violently changes your life. You are faced with a multitude of emotions all at once, with unpleasant experiences, hard decisions, and unexpected changes that need to be confronted and managed; the unthinkable has to be assimilated into what was once a normal life but is now a life changed forever.

To read, print or download my complete essay, click this link A discussion group_who needs it_handout.

Thanatology Café Rev. Ch. Harold Principal Facilitator

Thanatology Café
Rev. Ch. Harold
Principal Facilitator

Chaplaincy Sunyata Before Chaplaincy Nirvana

I rather enjoy reading what some of the contemporary pundits of professional chaplaincy have to say about the current status of the professional chaplain and state of affairs IN professional chaplaincy as a healthcare discipline.

George! Do you really mean that?

George! Do you really mean that?

 In a recent posting on a popular forum for professional chaplains, a renowned personality, albeit from the podium of a branded accreditation organization, George Handzo, in a post “Lack of Integration for Chaplaincy is an International Issue” (that links directly  to his Handzo Consulting blog article) preaches some disputable notions about the profession and the burden of responsibility attaching to the community of professional chaplains (“we” per Handzo), and ipso facto to the individual professional chaplain.

In this posting I take issue with three of the venerable George’s distillations of statements made in two published texts cited by him (Wendy Cadge, Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine, University Of Chicago Press (2013) ISBN-13: 978-0226922119 and an article by Ian Macritchie appearing in the Scottish Journal of Healthcare Chaplaincy (not more specifically cited by Hanzo)).

While George Handzo is generally more or less on target in most of what he exposes to the professional community of [healthcare] chaplains, and while one cannot discount his allegiances, especially to the ACPE, he sometimes appears to preaching from his cathedra of laurels than from a more praxis-oriented position of insightful compassion for the frontline, in-the-trenches chaplain.

In general, I found his comments to be facially insensitive, almost indifferent to the actual obstacles facing the institutional chaplain, and he fails to note fairly that those obstacles have little to do with the professional chaplain but with the larger picture of institutional models and cultures, not the least to do with how we educate, train, and form the hierarchs running those institutions. Here my responses:

Handzo Point: “1. The responsibility for the lack of full integration and lack of growth of professional chaplaincy in health care rests mostly if not entirely with us as chaplains.”

This is placing an inordinate and unrealistic burden on the shoulders of professional chaplains and does not take into consideration the real fact that developments in both “professional” (viz. interfaith) as opposed to “denominational” chaplaincy, socio-cultural changes, and models of healthcare in the past half-century. Whereas prior to the most recent five decades chaplaincy was generally the purview of the ordained cleric or, in the hands of “religious,” it is now, like spiritual guidance, up for grabs, if you will, for just about anyone discerning a “calling” to serve the suffering. This, compounded by the problem of over-marketing of certification and the suspicion associated with the process. Some of that suspicion granted is pure envy and professional lassitude but some is factually based.

Yet another problem is posed by the fact that the practically inexhaustable availablity of unqualified volunteers being welcomed by ignorant volunteer coordinators with the blessing of indifferent institutional hierarchy is not even broached, despite the fact that it is an insidious affront to professional chaplaincy and its institutional and public image!

The decline in membership, rather active participation, in mainstream faith traditions, the aging of faith communities, the declining availability of qualified and formed clergy and religious, and the various popular theologies espoused by overzealous agendas have fostered, and nurtured, a climate of “apostolic missionary ministries” and programs, volunteer programs are the most culpable, that welcome the half-baked, baggage-laden, “chaplains” and pastoral care associates responding to nebulous “callings” into nursing homes and hospitals. Why? Not because professional chaplains (those with professional degrees, appropriate life experience, necessary acquired skills, and an understanding of the organization and dynamics of their chosen or preferred work environment) have shirked their duty of “evangelizing” hierarchy in institutions that would benefit from the ministrations of professional chaplains and well-organized pastoral care departments, but because the hierarchy is generally inculturated with the focus on institutional efficacy and efficiency in a fiscal, technical and regulatory sense, rather than in a customer-centered wholistic sense.

While I do not disagree that the chaplain, as a professional minister, bears some responsibility to guide and to educate institutional hierarchy, we are also inculcated with the notion of boundaries and avoidance of making and impression of overstepping, trespassing. We are admonished against proselytizing, evangelizing where inappropriate; so, too, we are admonished against proselytizing the important role of chaplaincy in an institution that feels expanding the gift shop has priority over providing the chaplain with a respectable space. This requires an attitude shift not in hierarchies that are focused on corporate business objectives but in the very early stages of education of the individuals who will later become the board members, the vp’s of quality, customer relations, public relations, etc.

Healthcare delivery models have changed. No longer is there the family physician or event the primary care physician at the bedside. The hospitalist model has taken the lead. In some respects this is good for chaplaincy because the chaplain has a finite number of physicians to deal with and a chief hospitalist to recruit to the cause, with whom to communicate, and from whom to gain access to the inner sanctum. Analogous models can be found in other institutions benefitting from the ministry of spiritual support such as jails, long – term care facilities, colleges, etc. Indeed, no amount of theology or scriptural studies, nor human developmental theory, nor spirituality and prayer discipline is of practical value when attempting to communicate and to work in such an environment.

The bottom line here is to first of all to access the decision-makers of the institution, to speak their languages (sometimes also their institutional dialects), and to make the impression of understanding the culture and the concerns (especially the institutional strategic mission and how chaplaincy plays an integral role in that mission) of hierarchy.

Handzo Point: 2.  To the extent that our status in health care is due to the lack of understanding by others of our capabilities and possible contributions, we need to bear full responsibility for that situation.”

Vide supra (the above is included here in its entirety by reference).

The status of the professional healthcare of the professional chaplain is that of a healthcare provider. Period. Again, I beg to disagree with the venerable George on the point that we (I am assuming George is referring to the community of professional chaplains) “bear the full responsibility for lack of understanding by others of our capabilities and possible contributions.” That statement is not wholly true and if not wholly true, is false.

Neither the individual chaplain nor the various corporate entities that claim to advocate for the individual chaplain can claim to bear full responsibility for the general, regional, and local understandings of attitudes towards the capabilities and contributions of chaplaincy. First of all, the statement is overly broad and overreaching in its scope. Acceptance of chaplaincy in general differs widely from locale to locale, from institution to institution. To homogenize this understanding to positively affect the overall acceptance and admittance of the role, competency and contribution of chaplaincy would be an almost impossible task. It would have to start at a national level, preferably in the form of recommendations, regulations, and legislation. This is, in fact, in the making when one considers more recent HIPA and JCAHO statements and provisions, and while I may rightly be accused of strong criticism of the various chaplain accreditation organizations, I do admit that they may have a role in a sort of lobbying activity to nudge legislators and key bureaucrats and other influential pundits of healthcare.

Again, I must make a point that chaplaincy can be advocated and promoted only early in the formation of the hierarchs or, in the alternative, with an organized authoritative presence in places where the hierarchs convene to discuss their agendas such as at conferences and congresses. If recognized authorities in chaplaincy–not branded accreditation schemes or representatives of such agendized operations–are admitted a place at the head table or on the discussion panel, then we may gain certain ingress to the minds of those hierarchs, and through those sacred spaces, to their institutions as bona fide healthcare providers.

Handzo Point: “3. We have failed to make the case about how we ’help address larger institutional issues’ or how dispensing with chaplaincy would be a ‘great loss to healthcare outcomes.’”

Again, I must take issue with this statement, and again, vide supra.

I take umbrage that venerable George uses the corporate “we,” or in the alternative that the “we” is intended generally to embrace the community of professional chaplains. Here, too, we cannot go where we are barred access or where we are not expressly invited. It’s a long haul to move beyond the first level caregivers (nurses, techs, support staff, even physicians) to get to the boardroom. Nor do most “chaplains” have the credentials with which to impress hierarchs that what the chaplain has to say carries reliable business weight.

Take, for example, the hospital: How many chaplains can say that they have an adequate knowledge of the structure and organization of the hospital? Or of the myriad regulations that affect the hospital? Is the hospital a too  complex example? Take, then, a prison, if you will. What does the generalist chaplain know about prisons? About the regulations affecting prisons and their operation? So, absent specific, specialist training in specific and particular institutions, how does the chaplain addresss “larger institutional issues?” Without such training, knowledge, experience how does the chaplain address “larger institutional issues?” Does the professional chaplain have to have a degree in theology, in pastoral care, in business administration, public administration, and social work to do that? Or, in the alternative, does s / he forge inter –  or multi – disciplinary networks or support resources to do that? Does the professional chaplain need to be the epitome renaissance person or just know how to finagle and kibutz?As to the suggestion that “dispensing with chaplaincy ‘would be a great loss'” I must comment that to experience loss you must first attach value to the thing lost. And so we make full circle.

But what is pristinely clear to me is the fact that, like efficacious chaplaincy itself, the response, if not the answer, lies in an early access to the core decision makers…

The basic question to be answered, far from heaping the burdens of responsibility on the community of professional chaplains, as George Handzo appears to be willing to do, we must ask ourselves: At which point and how do we inculcate the much touted holistic healthcare model (spirit, mind, body) in the hearts and minds of the seculars who call the shots? It’s a very complex question and, since chaplaincy is such a variegated ministry and the cultures in which the ministry is done are so myriad, I personally doubt that there is really one answer. But what is pristinely clear to me is the fact that, like efficacious chaplaincy itself, the response, if not the answer, lies in an early access to the core decision makers, effective formation of the decision makers, comprehensive education, training, and formation of professional chaplains (after an appropriate period of reflection and ongoing discernment), frequent, open, and affordable continuing formation for chaplains, and express support from mainstream denominations of the ministry of chaplaincy based on a spiritual rather than a traditional model.

If I commit the offense of overgeneralization by making the statement that in the past chaplaincy has been its own arch-enemy, I humbly apologize. But chaplaincy must advocate itself as a professional healthcare discipline both internally and ad extra.

If we fail to communicate or document “outcomes” might it not be the shortcoming of the CPE programs themselves and not of the product they churn out as “chaplains”?

Handzo continues his editorializing by noting the problem of outcomes in chaplaincy. According to Handzo, “We often still resist the idea that outcomes are something chaplains should have. We don’t have commonly understood sets of outcomes, we don’t train our students to work toward outcomes, and we often don’t document outcomes so other members of the health care team know what we do.” Again that ubiquitous, corporate “we,” that contributes only to the ambiguity of what Handzo is writing. Who is this “we?” It certainly cannot be the in – the – trenches professional chaplain, or can it, George? It also seems a bit misleading to hear an apostle of the CPE movement, a board member of the consulting firm Healthcare Chaplaincy and a past president of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), would make such a statement, especially in view of the reasonable prestige that Rev. Handzo allegedly has in the chaplaincy movement. If “we” have not established “commonly understood sets of outcomes,” and we “don’t train our student to work toward outcomes,” “and we often don’t document outcomes,” that is, we do not communicate to other members of the inter –  or multi – disciplinary team members, whose fault is that? Might it not be the shortcoming of the CPE programs themselves and not of the product they churn out as “chaplains.”

Handzo is describing a lack of community, a lack of consensus, a lack of fraternity among professional chaplains –  – could this be attributable to the plethora of competing “advocacy” or “standards” or “certifying” organizations and competing “outcomes”

Handzo continues, “I am convinced that one of our greatest barriers is our own infighting and the time we waste debating internally whether professional chaplains should have outcomes, demonstrate value, and have measurable outcomes. I find myself increasingly disinterested in engaging those questions.” I am appalled that a leader in the chaplaincy movement and a leader in the CPE movement should be “disinterested” (I am somewhat at a loss what Handzo intends to mean by “disinterested.” Does he mean “indifferent?” “Impartial?” “Dispassionate?”) in engaging such questions! It would seem that Handzo is describing a lack of community, a lack of consensus, a lack of fraternity among professional chaplains –  – could this be attributable to the plethora of competing “advocacy” or “standards” or “certifying” organizations and competing “outcomes.” I’m also having some difficulty with the notion of “outcomes” in spiritual support, and wonder where that one came from. Handzo conspicuously avoids any further elaboration of what are the outcomes to which we should aspire, or how we demonstrate value and to whom. I have not problem demonstrating value to the suffering nor demonstrating value to my contributions to staff education, institutional image, community outreach, service retention, etc. but my point is: How many readers understand these to be values to be demonstrated?

My further point is that Handzo fails to define his terms like “demonstrate value.” Measurable outcomes poses another problem. From the administrative, management point of view I can appreciate the the board or the corporate director for quality might be so limited as to grasp only PowerPoint depictions of measureable outcomes, metrics, etc. If that’s what Handzo is meaning, does that really fall on the lap of the in-the-trenches chaplain? True, the professional chaplain very frequently wears the administrative, managerial hat, too, of director of “pastoral care” (Ugghhhh!) but does the in – the – trenches provider have the time, energy, inclination to start recording “measurable outcomes?” I think not, especially when the professional chaplain, if the institution even has a professional chaplain, has the burden of impossible numbers of patients and the responsibility to triage who gets the visit and who doesn’t. There seems to be a serious disconnect between Handzo’s statement and the real world.

There are many saints that are locked out because of the rigor of artificial and ambiguous certification agendas; likewise, many individuals with more temporal than spiritual / apostolic aspirations gain access to sensitive precincts and cause much damage…

Regrettably, Handzo’s concluding statement: “I continue to rejoice that this is a large and growing group both in the US and abroad that I hope and trust will continue to make a difference in how spirituality is integrated into health care” does not lend much lucidity to what he attempts to share with us. In fact, it reveals a deplorable lack of sensitivity to the complexity of chaplaincy, especially when considering chaplaincy in terms of international models. Which group? The wannabe’s or the professionals? The branded certificated or the natural vocations? The international organizations’ membership censuses or the invisible ministers of spiritual support to the suffering. I’m not quite clear what Rev. Handzo’s point is, really.

There are many saints that are locked out because of the rigor of artificial and ambiguous certification agendas; likewise, many individuals with more temporal than spiritual / apostolic aspirations gain access to sensitive precincts and cause much damage. As impractical, even impossible as it may sound, we must self-police, inter-form, and inform each other as co-disciples, and then corporately police, form, and inform our target institutions. We can do this only if we are humbly authentic and emptied of self-interest and attachments. In other words, we much attain chaplaincy “sunyata” before we can attain chaplaincy “nirvana.”

plant in hand

Links of Interest from “Soul of Bioethics”

The following recommended sites were published by Soul of Bioethics, an online  publication of Health Care Chaplaincy. We are publishing them here because they may be of interest to our readers.

GENERATIONAL JUSTICE.  See “Justice between Generations:
The Recent History of an Idea” at: Generational Justice

ALZHEIMER’S AND MEMORY. Listen to the podcast of “Alzheimer’s, Memory and Being” with Alan Dienstag, interviewed by Krista Tippett on her show “On Being” (formerly “Speaking of Faith”) at: Alzheimers and Memory.
   
PALLIATIVE CARE.  For thoughts about bioethics, suffering and palliation, see the article at. To visit the site please click Palliative Care.

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