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Thoughts on death

Thoughts on death
Thoughts on death
Dr. Wayne Willis

When are we dead?

Our understanding of when death comes has changed. Through the centuries, people believed that death came when we “breathed our last.” That was the moment when we “gave up the ghost,” when our spirit departed.

In my lifetime, all that changed. Long ago, when I began a residency in Indianapolis to become a hospital chaplain, the code for charting a death was RHC, initials for “Respirations Have Ceased.” But there were all those cases where lungs stopped functioning or the heart stopped functioning, or both, and the individual was successfully resuscitated. For the past half century, the clinical (and legal) definition of death has been the cessation of all brain activity, both the cerebral functions and the reptilian brain stem.

What happens after death?

Several months ago, I studied the obituaries in a Sunday newspaper. Of 50 deaths, only seven reported that the individual died. Most read “passed away.” Some included circumstances of the passing: “unexpectedly,” “at home,” “surrounded by his loving family” or “peacefully.” Some gave a spiritual interpretation of the event: “returned home to her Heavenly Father,” “returned to the Lord,” “joined her heavenly father,” “entered eternal life,” “went home,” “was welcomed into the kingdom of heaven,” “entered into the presence of her Lord and Savior.”

If you were composing your loved one’s obituary, or yours, what would be your word choice? “Died” is the simplest, plainest description, the same word we use when flashlight batteries wear out or a tornado ceases to spin. The euphemism “passed away” (to a different dimension or place) is definitely softer and gentler than the dreaded D-word that connotes extinction, oblivion or nothingness.

Whatever our expectations of afterlife, what we desire most in that final chapter of this life is encirclement by those we love.