I was present for the births of my three sons, and I was present for the deaths of both my parents. All five incidents occurred before I became a Quaker and were benchmarks for my understanding of life and death.
Years before these life-changing moments had happened, I taught an elective course on death and dying in our local high school English department. Yes, death and dying—in the English department. We studied the five stages of dying Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described in her book On Death and Dying and the ten stages of grief Granger E. Westberg listed in his book Good Grief. We had guest speakers, including emergency medical technicians, nurses, and funeral directors. We watched videos, had class discussions, and took tests.
It sounds like a normal high school class, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. First, the class was very popular—for an English class—filled to capacity with eager students every time it was offered. I started the first day by explaining how the class should not be titled “Death and Dying” but should be “Life and Living” instead, because we can’t get on with living our lives fully until we have come to grips with our dying, a valuable lesson for those 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds (and for the rest of us, of course).
Another abnormal facet making our death and dying class unlike a normal class was our practice of taking field trips to local funeral homes. We toured the facilities (including the embalming room) and familiarized ourselves with the surroundings and the atmosphere so that future, real-world visits wouldn’t be as stressful.
However, the main characteristic that separated the death and dying class from a normal class was the constant undercurrent of authenticity. All the students understood that the subject was real and applied to every one of them. All of them had some experience with death, whether it was the death of a pet or the passing of grandparents or distant relatives. The students had sincere questions. I could tell that they truly wanted to understand, to learn, and to apply what they learned.
We frequently had deep class discussions. After analyzing what happens when we die, questions invariably turned to what happens after we die. Every class had students representing the extremes: one might declare that nothing happens after we die, and another might say he or she would be the first human to become immortal. In between, a variety of philosophies emerged: usually heaven and hell, sometimes reincarnation, and occasionally elaborate individualized constructs of an afterlife.
We once had a lively discussion comparing birth and death. We observed that when people die or have near-death experiences, the dying must accomplish the task by themselves, although others may be present. The process can take some time and some work. Some who’ve had near-death experiences report going through a long tunnel and encountering a bright light at its end. Some individuals exhibit pain and then reveal relief from that pain. Some even indicate that someone, usually someone very familiar to them, meets and welcomes them to “the other side.” Doesn’t that also sound like childbirth?
Remember that all of this teaching and learning occurred before I had experienced the births of my three sons and the deaths of my parents. Admittedly, teaching such subjects and actually going through them are very different. Yes, both were intense and stressful, and both were life changing. But in different ways, those experiences were awe inspiring and consciousness raising.
It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try. I witnessed the beginning of life three times. It was exciting, exhilarating, imbued with hope for a future, saturated with positive potential, and hyped with happiness. In addition, I witnessed death twice. It was saturated with sadness, a heavy hurt in the heart, a dread of finality, a desire to rewind, a fear of the unknown, and coping with the inevitable. Even though a single life was born and a single life passed away, both events were a team effort. During the births, my wife and I were a team, joined by the doctor and obstetrics nurses. During the deaths, my father had family, emergency medical technicians, and emergency room personnel on his team, and my mother had family, doctors, and a wonderful hospice nurse. After the immediate experience, life was never the same. After the births, we brought children home and coped with the serious responsibility of loving and caring for new lives. We anticipated the pride of sharing our gifted progeny with the world. After the deaths, we buried my parents and coped with the reality of a void created by the loss of entities that had always been there, of beings who loved us, nurtured us, shared their wisdom with us. For me, witnessing birth and death were life-changing events, difficult to comprehend yet awe inspiring.
Years later, after my father’s death and the baby boys had grown into late childhood and preadolescence, our family sought a church that offered an active youth group. In our area, that was the Friends meeting. It was a good fit for us, and we soon became members. With time, we got used to the lack of a cross in the sanctuary, as well as the absence of outward rituals such as baptism and communion. We learned to center ourselves into silent worship and were attentive to vocal ministry provided by weighty Friends. Often serendipities occurred when a mention in vocal ministry tied in directly with a point in the sermon, or when an illustration in the children’s talk appeared as an image in the special music. It was so frequent that it went beyond coincidence.
Inviting Christ into the silent worship was very real. The collective consciousness of the congregation lifted the worshipers to a level of spirituality with Jesus in the midst.
Shortly after we joined the Friends meeting, my mother passed away. It was a beautiful, peaceful death. She was able to die at home, surrounded by family and in the loving care of a capable, compassionate hospice nurse. In the course of my grieving months later, I reflected on my mother’s death and on death in general.
I discovered from my reflections that linking death and Quakers was a little like the birth-and-death comparison discussed in my classroom years earlier. After some contemplation, this is what I think now: I think Quakers sit in meeting for worship and center individually, like a dying person experiencing the tunnel image. Collectively, like the team image, they encounter at the end of the tunnel the bright light, the welcoming of Jesus into the worship experience—or the welcoming by Jesus guiding the person into the light, into the afterlife of the Spirit.
Also, anyone expecting a detailed description of the afterlife is going to be disappointed. I could describe the pearly gates of heaven with its streets paved with gold. And I could paint a vivid picture of the fiery gates of hell, leading to an eternity of damnation. But why should I? Experts with better theological credentials than mine have written (and preached) enthusiastically about both over the course of church history.
Besides, many times I have felt as though I experienced heaven right here on earth, during my life. (And, on the contrary, occasionally I experienced hell right here on earth: have you ever attempted to keep a large group of teenagers academically occupied a week before they graduate high school?)
However, I am confident about life after death. Although I’m not sure if it is heaven or hell, I am sure of this: since God created this beautiful creation and allowed me to experience it, both mentally and physically, I can’t believe He would let it evaporate into a dull, dark thud of nothingness at its end.
Consequently, I believe death is our consciousness taken to a heightened level of spirituality with Jesus in the midst. That consciousness or soul or spirit was with us before we were born, and it will be with us after we die. I am comfortable with believing in a simple state of being that never truly dies.