Witnessing a death is always a momentous occasion. But it can also be an uplifting moment as well.
Consider the experience of Meg Tipper, a Maryland woman who recalls the inspiration she received from being present at the death of her beloved grandfather. She was 20 then, but almost two decades later, it seems clear that the experience is one she will remember vividly -- and positively -- for the rest of her life. Here are some of her recollections:
"He had stopped eating and his breath was very shallow. ... I knew he was dying, and I held his hand and sang softly hymns that I remembered from church.
"Suddenly, my grandfather's hand tightened, gripping mine, the first sense of life in him that I'd felt in a long time. His face that had for so long been twisted in confusion and discontent became soft and gentle. He opened his mouth a little and suddenly his eyelids flung wide. His deep blue eyes looked upward at a point I couldn't see; they were shining with life and hope. ... His whole face shone, as radiant as a child's. And in that moment, he died.
"Being with my grandfather when he died was not painful; it was a privilege. Nothing, before or after, has more profoundly confirmed my faith in God. Nothing could have done more to ease my fears about my own death."
This kind of experience with death may seem rare these days. But in fact, until recent years when more deaths occurred in the privacy -- or isolation -- of hospitals, the moment of death has often been a serious but social occasion, an event that drew family and friends together at the bedside of a dying person. It was a somber time, but it was not lonely or devoid of meaning.
Like other momentous occasions, death inspired its own rituals -- not just the rituals surrounding the disposition of the body or the mourning process, but also the deathbed scenes that were part of cultural lore. Last words were remembered and often recorded for posterity. Observers took inspiration from the faith or courage or quiet dignity of the dying person.
Given the precariousness of human life, peaceful deaths in the supportive company of family and friends may have been the exception even in earlier eras when deaths often took place at home. But the ideal -- and the rituals -- were ingrained in the cultural imagination. People could aspire to such a death; they knew it was possible to die with dignity.
It's even possible today, as Meg Tipper's story shows. But in the popular imagination, the serene deathbed scene has vanished -- replaced by the nightmare of respirators and tube feeding and violent efforts to revive failing hearts.
These days we know that, instead of a peaceful death, many of us face the prospects of dying in sterile, mechanical hospital rooms, attached to complicated machinery with bells and whistles to warn of any ebbing of vital signs. Surrounded by technology and medical personnel whose job is to postpone death as long as possible, it is difficult for family members to have any privacy during their loved one's last moments of consciousness.
No wonder the cry for "death with dignity" is becoming a political movement.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.