Paul Gregory Alms on the Dying Body as a Window into the Soul
Preacher, they are going to pull the plug. I think you better come over here.” When I hear these words, I recall the familiar terror at having yet again to face death. Not death in a book or as a faraway thought that “yes, people die,” but death coming to someone I know well, death that I will witness in a matter of hours.
I know that death will grab that family on the inside and squeeze from them emotions and grief they did not know they possessed. This family will look to me, the preacher, to speak, to say something.
But I also wonder at the choice of words. “Pulling the plug.” It is a phrase that has become more and more associated with the last moments of human life. The dear Christian woman who called me was not speaking of a dishwasher or a computer but a person, a man she loved, one whose death would break her heart. Yet she used sterile and mechanistic words to announce his coming death. They are pulling the plug.
No More Angels
Increasingly, the experience of death and even, yes, specifically Christian death (that is, Christians dying with Christians there to witness it) is mostly filled not with moments of meditation on Scripture, nor with prayer, nor even with bittersweet memories. No, the hours of passing are used up staring at computer screens that spit out mysterious data we barely understand but think somehow to be crucial.
Even if we are dying at home, we discuss medical issues, pain thresholds, internal organ performance. We watch our loved ones die while watching heart rates and oxygen levels and commenting on the fluctuations of blood pressure and kidney function. We die in hospitals and hospice care where the (mostly caring and loving) attendants adjust morphine levels and our ears are filled with the relentless hum of machines and IV drips. “His blood pressure dropped 10 points last hour. Might be the end.” “Can’t be long. His kidneys have shut down.”
Death comes to us not as angels carrying the soul to distant shores, not as a grim reaper grabbing his prey, not even as one falling asleep. Death comes as system failure, the machine of the body coming to a stop—as planned obsolescence. The doctors and attendants chronicle and interpret the confusing river of numbers and levels and screens with jaggedy lines scrolling on and on.
Healthcare workers are today’s high priests of death, the mediators between us and our loved ones, now patched into the machine of technological medicine, the machine that promises life and ultimately eases our way to mortality. The room becomes suddenly hushed when the one with the stethoscope enters. We watch his movements as carefully as primitive believers watch the gyrations of a witch doctor. Every move is analyzed, we are intensely curious about every word and gesture of the “medical professional,” every body part touched, every machine adjusted. His words are analyzed and pondered.
When we come to questions of death and dying, it is doctors and medical professionals who supply the answers. They speak of potassium levels and respirators and how sorry they are.
A philosophy professor I had in college once commented on how the dominant technology of the day becomes the dominant image we have of our mind and rationality and the workings of our bodies. If gears and pulleys run our machines, we tend to think of ourselves in terms of gears and pulleys.
Paul Gregory Alms (paulgregoryalms.blogspot.com) is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Catawba, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with both MDiv and STM degrees. He has written extensively for journals such as First Things, Concordia Theological Journal, Lutheran Witness, Lutheran Forum, The Cresset, and others. He is married and the father of four girls.
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