“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This are the words spoken over those of us who receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and I think it is an important thing for us to reflect upon during the time of Lent. In an increasingly youth focused culture that is very reluctant to talk seriously about death, spending time reflecting on our own mortality is healthy. But what does it mean to reflect on one’s death, and how can one prepare for that one experience no human will escape? Well, I think there are some very practical steps we can take, and Lent is the perfect liturgical season for them.
In the last year, I have had a number of friends who had loved ones die, and they have all lamented something similar: having to go through their loved one’s clutter. Now, as anyone who has been to visit my house knows, we’re quite the cluttered family, but I have been particularly convicted on this point. When people are dealing with grief and loss, they don’t particularly want to sort through years of papers, boxes full of things that are, to them, meaningless, or any of the other things we might squirrel away. One piece of advice I’ve heard that seems helpful is: for those meaningful things that have sentimental value to you, but not others, take a picture, print it out, and frame it. That way you have the memory of the item (stuffed animal, old rock concert t-shirt, or what have you), but in a much easier to deal with form. Maybe instead of “Spring Cleaning”, we need to engage in a “Lenten Cleaning”, as a way to prepare our homes for when we return to dust. Well, at least I do.
Another practical tool for dealing with our own mortality is the workbook When I’m Gone (there are others, but this is the one I have). It is a simple book with places to put all number of things that those we leave behind will find useful. It covers things like bank account numbers, life insurance details, and the location of your will. But it also includes space for putting down social media and email user names and passwords, because that information is important to hand off, too. Additionally, the book has places for us to detail who will take care of our children and our pets, and care instructions for them. It asks who we want at our funeral, has a place for special instructions for our funeral, and a place to put our final words of wisdom to our family.
There is a lot more to the book, and I encourage you to take a look at it or a similar one. Having conversations with friends and families about these issues is important, but when people are grieving a loss, memories will not be as good as we would like. Having a written copy of things will make the lives of those who are mourning you so much easier. As the final page of the book says, “having a will is the most important thing you can do to help loved ones left behind. This book is a close second.”
Something I wish When I’m Gone contained was a section on a “living will” or advanced directives. The physicians I know who deal with people at the end of their lives tell me that quite often families have no real idea what their dying loved ones wishes are. “Would they want to live this way?” is a difficult question at a difficult time. Discussing, and writing down, our wishes for how we are to be treated in the case that we can no longer provide informed consent on our healthcare is an important part of preparing ourselves, and our loved ones, for our eventual death. Ask yourselves, dear reader, how long you might want to live with a feeding tube, on dialysis, or on a ventilator. These are difficult questions, but someone may have to answer them for you some day. It would be for the best if they had your guidance. The Mayo Clinic has an extensive page for guidance on creating advanced directives. I urge you to explore that page, reflect upon the questions there, discuss them with those who love you, and write down the answers as a part of your Lenten practice.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently in year four of Sewanne's Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence.