In countless ways, religion is focused on death -- sometimes even to the point that it can move people to limit their focus on life itself and thus miss half the party.
Some faith traditions warn of the terrible punishments that might await after you die if you've lived in ways that religion considers sinful. Some paint pictures of astonishing peace and joy in an afterlife. In fact, a well-known local preacher once told me how frustrated he sometimes gets because of people who are "so focused on heaven that they're no earthly good."
But in all of this there isn't much focus by faith communities on just what does it mean to be dead. Exactly what is death, anyway? And how do we know it's really time for, say, a religious funeral? Or any kind of memorial service?
It seems like it's a question that would have such an obvious answer that it can make one feel just a little foolish to ask it at all. But perhaps in this time of enormous scientific advancement, especially in the field of medicine and its ability to keep a body seemingly alive on machines after it's been declared brain dead, maybe it's not such a stupid question after all.
In fact, it's the very question that this longish, fascinating story in The New Yorker raises, focusing on the case of a California teen-ager named Jahi who, after complications from tonsil-removal surgery, was declared brain dead in 2013 but who still is attached to life-support machinery today, awaiting a trial that might help clarify whether she's dead or alive.
"Like all states," the story by Rachel Aviv notes, "California follows a version of the 1981 Uniform Determination of Death Act, which says that someone who has sustained the 'irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.' California law requires that hospitals permit 'a reasonably brief period of accommodation' before disconnecting a ventilator — long enough to allow family to gather, but not so long that hospitals neglect the 'needs of other patients and prospective patients in urgent need of care.'”
But for lots of complicated reasons explained in the piece, the family wasn't happy with the medical care and decisions being made about the girl and they refused permission to remove her from the ventilator.
Even as Jahi has been in her bed and the subject of litigation, some medical people and ethicists are having second thoughts about what death really is. As Aviv notes:
"Recent advances in neuroimaging have led some clinicians to consider the possibility that a significant portion of patients thought to be in a vegetative state — those who demonstrate no overt awareness of their environment and do not make purposeful movements — have been misdiagnosed; they may be periodically conscious and capable of some degree of communication."
Which raises the related question: What is life?
If nothing else this article almost certainly will complicate your thinking about both life and death. And to be challenged to rethink what we already think we know is almost always a useful thing.
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RELIGIOUS RESPONSES TO THE #SOTU
Perhaps it is no surprise that different religious leaders reacted in opposite ways to President Trump's State of the Union speech Tuesday night. As the Religion News Service piece to which I've linked you reveals, we are a divided nation, and not just politically. Sigh.
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P.S.: The Kansas City Star has published online this column by Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and me about an outrageous law under consideration in Poland that would make it a crime to blame Poland in any way for what the Germans did there in the Holocaust. We invite you to give it a read and share your thoughts there.