“People tend to die the way they’ve lived.” So say two of the guests from different segments of this podcast. Both Dr. Samuel Brown, a medical school professor and doctor who specializes in intensive care medicine, and Philip McLemore, a longtime hospice chaplain, have experienced the deaths of many patients and clients, and have been with them and their families in the days and months leading to their passing. Stephen Carter has edited a newly published book of essays, stories, plays, and poetry by Mormons reflecting on various aspects of death and the dying process titled Moth and Rust: Mormon Encounters with Death (Signature Books, 2017). In this three-part episode, each of them shares his experiences and wisdom related to the mystery of death, the elements that typically come together well when someone’s passing might be labeled a “good” or “holy” death, how interactions between those dying and their families and loved ones can affect the experience of someone’s moving on as well as for the grieving processes that follow, and much more.
In Part 1, Stephen reflects on his experiences and meditations over the past two years of gathering and preparing for publication the various writings that make up Moth and Rust. He is especially alerted to how this book is quite different than most writings about death within Mormon culture and publishing, as these others seem to focus on death as part of the “big picture,” the ongoing story of the Plan of Salvation, on eternal life and what lies ahead. They typically focus on answers and assurances to those facing their own deaths or those of loved ones. Moth and Rust separates itself from these by featuring short accounts of various aspects of death and dying without much theoretical overlay. In it you’ll find pieces that show Mormons facing deaths of all kinds, including that of infants and children. About Latter-day Saints sharing both assurance and confusion about communion across the veil. Of them learning about themselves and their highest values from encounters with death. About God and suffering. And more! (The book has 46 entries!)
Part 2, featuring Sam Brown, focuses first on his work as a historian studying early nineteenth-century and Mormon death culture and the high prevalence of death during this time period and how it affected daily and religious lives and thinking. People during this time period were far more familiar with death up close than we now are because of medical technology and understandings that extend life, but also because of the rise of the funeral industry which has led to the outsourcing of care for the body and preparation for burial, things that were once managed within the home. It then turns to Dr. Brown’s experiences with patients who are very sick and often facing imminent death, including how this work has affected his own personal views of death and dying, as well as his spiritual life.
Part 3 presents stories and reflections from Phil McLemore’s work as a hospice chaplain in Utah, working with mostly Mormon clients and their families. In what ways does Mormonism both sometimes comfort but also complicate things as someone faces death? He and Stephen speak passionately about LDS culture (and wider Western, capitalist culture) and its role in sometimes hiding from thought processes and failing to communicate well the importance of someone’s doing within their lifetime (or in the final months prior to death) the kinds of “inner” or spiritual work that is often a big factor in someone’s peaceful transition from mortality to immortality. As with Sam in Part 2, this third segment also spends a good amount of time on what factors, should time and faculties and conscious awareness be granted to the person who is in the dying process, can and do contribute to a “good” death.
This is a terrific series of conversations that can lead to a greater appreciation for life through its focusing as early as we can and regularly on this difficult to talk about subject that is also a very important aspect of life. Memento Vivere; Memento Mori!
Please listen and then share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Stephen Carter, ed., Moth and Rust: Mormon Encounters with Death (Signature Books, 2017)
Samuel Morris Brown, In Heaven As It Is on Earth:Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Atul Gawande with Krista Tippett, “What Matters in the End?” On Being podcast, 26 October 2017
Caitlyn Doughty with Doug Fabrizio, “From Here to Eternity,” RadioWest podcast, 31 October 2017
Dawn Thurston and Morris Thurston, Breathe Life Into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read (Signature Books, 2007)