Respecting Death: an Odd Family Tradition
I’m a stickler for family traditions. Therefore, as I told my doctor, my preferred way to die is of some kind of cardiac incident in a church.
That was how my maternal grandmother died – and how her mother died before her! And both in the same little church of St. Henri in my mother’s French-Canadian hometown…
Their Death Stories
My great-grandmother was an 87-year-old widow, living in the small farming community where she had been born and where she had lived with her husband and nine children for many decades. Since her husband’s death the year before, she had been living with her daughter and son-in-law on their farm. This couple brought her to church on that September morning when, sitting apart from them in her own pew, she rose at the beginning of Mass and, upon rising, collapsed. The Mass was interrupted, of course, and it’s believed that she was dead before she could be carried outside.
Her daughter, my Grandmaman (who had been the organist up in the choir loft when her mother had died) passed from this life into the next at the age of 71. She, too, was living in the same small village where she had been born and where she had lived for all but two or three years of her life, birthing and raising her 14 children first on farms and then above the general store that she and her husband had owned. Her husband, my grandfather, drove her to the church on that first day of January, a Holy Day, and dropped her off near the entrance. As he left her to park the car, she climbed the many steps of St. Henri and stepped within the doors. Dipping her fingers into the holy water, she asked for God’s blessing in the customary way, making the sign of the cross over her body, and then dropped to the floor. Someone ran for her husband, another for the priest, another to call an ambulance, while still others gently lifted her, lying her down on the last pew. The ambulance did not make it in time to that rural village church, but my grandfather was quickly by her side as she lie immobile, unable to speak, her big, beautiful brown eyes looking up into his tender and anxious blue eyes. She received the last rites from the priest and, within 15 minutes, my grandmother’s heart stopped.
My great-grandmother died before my mother even met my father and my grandmother died when I was just shy of nine months old, so I never got to know them and didn’t mourn their passing. But, death is always a sorrow. Dying itself must also be horribly sad and probably even terrifying, both for the one who is dying and for the ones who are going to be left behind. Death is part of life, yes, absolutely and irrevocably. But, this fact doesn’t make it easier.
Never Two without Three
My maternal aunts have joked that there’s “never two without three” and wondered which one of them would die in a church just before Mass. Although grieving for their older sister (the first to pass of the nine sisters) they later, with mock exasperation, wished that she had done it in church so that they would no longer have to worry about their own church attendance. But, I can’t think of a better place to die – and I’m hoping that this tradition, like many in a family, will skip a generation and come to me.
I’m serious. And I’m not morbid. What’s wrong with thinking about how you’re going to die? There’s nothing wrong with it as long as you’re not obsessing about it. And I’m certainly not obsessing. My first and most important question is “How am I going to live?” Living my life, here and now, to my best ability is the goal for which I am striving. But, I am intelligent and reasonable and I know that my earthly life will come to an end. I will die, I will experience death. That’s how the telling of my story will end, along with the concluding transition into the mystery of eternal life beyond this one (which is really an extension of, or, better yet, the natural and infinite trajectory of this one.)
My grandmother was intelligent, charitable, and God-loving, with a good sense of fun, and she, like me, was a keeper of family histories. It would be an honor to follow in her footsteps through death, closing my eyes to earthly life on a Sunday morning, before the Real Presence at the altar, surrounded by sunlit stained-glass windows and fellow believers watching me go Home.
Of course, how we die is not entirely in our hands. As life must be respected, death also must be respected, and understood as the natural end of life. Therefore, it goes against the dignified nature of death to intentionally bring it about for oneself or someone else. Suicide is the most tragic way to die – because it is not only against life, but also against death. It is sadly self-centered, brought about by some kind of depression, mental illness, or evil influence/pressure. Each and every one of us must wait for death to come to us.
And come it will.
Why not make death less scary and terrible by taking a few moments to think about the different ways in which it can come to us? Of course, all of us would begin with wanting to live as long as we possibly can. May God bless you with a long, loving, and healthy life here on earth! …Then what?
Yes, I did tell my doctor, who’s known me since I was five, that my preferred death plan is death by heart disease inside of a church. “If you ever hear of me dying this way,” I said to him as I am saying to you, my dear readers, “be extremely happy for me!”
© 2017 Christina Chase
Christina Chase View All
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.
Well, you look like both of these good ladies, so …
I hope that St Henri is still open occasionally and that you don’t need to be bumped up all those steps. You look like an access-all-areas campaign picture there!
A few years ago we were at this church in Wales.The wind blew my 20 year old daughter off the top step and into my arms. They installed a lift when the place was refurbished and made safe. A lovely building though.
I hope your invitation to share this includes us!
That is one unique church! Thank God you were there to catch your daughter – good dad!
The last time that I went to Saint Henri, upon its ceremonial closing, 4 men helped bump me up the steps. Once at the top, we found out that one of them was 90 years old!!! Tough French-Canadian! Thankfully, he didn’t die on the steps! I believe the church can still be used for special occasions. But, that won’t be the church for my parting.
Thank you for reflecting and sharing with me,
I love this story and not just because I know some of the players! I kidded my mom (the eldest) daughter that she would die at the bottom of the steps and that my oldest sister would then die at the curb. It’s am amazing tradition. Thank you my dearest cousin and my sweetest friend.
Pauline on the curb? Real nice, Jacqui. 🙂 In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter where we die, as we know where your mom is now and with whom.
Love and peace
I did not know our great-grandmother died the same. Thank you for sharing more details of the family history and “it” will come. I agree it is healthy to think about.
Always glad to keep and share the family stories! I’ve been receiving updates from your family through our mothers and continue to pray for all of you. Along with stubbornness and the love of talking, remember there is great strength and faith in our family 🙂 Love and peace to you, Stephanie!
Calling death “the mystery of eternal life beyond this one (which is really an extension of, or, better yet, the natural and infinite trajectory of this one.)” makes it a whole lot easier to face the fact rather than hide it, as I so often catch myself doing. Beautiful reflection, all of it. Thanks Christina!
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Great post – really a great series of posts on life issues. I’m just catching up with reading them now. Each is poignant in its own way. The old photos in this article are especially beautiful.
I must admit that I, for one, do not want to live as long as I possibly can. Not that I am in a hurry to die and certainly I’m not suicidal. It is just that longevity runs in my family. My maternal grandmother lived to be 93 and she had three sisters who lived to be older than that. My mother is close to her 91st birthday.
I have seen how hard the lives of the very old can get. However, I’m quite willing to stay in this life as long as God wants me to – I just let Him know how hard it would be for me to have to wait another 30 or 40 years to meet Him face-to-face. 🙂 I pray that I will have the courage and support to offer myself to Him in whatever suffering comes my way.
And I do not want anyone to “assist” me in the dying process when the time comes – with the exceptions of the angels, saints and Christ Himself – to be sure I make it past the evil one who may try one last time to pull me away from the light of God.
Christina – you have a beautiful vocation. Thanks for writing and sharing so much of yourself.
Thank you for reflecting with me, Mary! I really like what you wrote: “And I do not want anyone to “assist” me in the dying process when the time comes – with the exceptions of the angels, saints and Christ Himself – to be sure I make it past the evil one who may try one last time to pull me away from the light of God.” I hadn’t thought of that – amen!
Also “I pray that I will have the courage and support to offer myself to Him in whatever suffering comes my way.” I’m with you – amen.
I do keep telling myself that my writing is my vocation – my very living – But it is so nice and good to hear someone else say it. Thank you!