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The Last Passage: Re-visioning Dying, Death, and Funeral

by Donald Heinz

Dr. Heinz is associate professor of religious studies at California State University, Chico. This article appeared in the Christian Century January 6-13, 1982, p. 21. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Recently my aging parents visited my home in California. My mother brought along precious tapes and asked me to transfer them to cassettes which she could play on the small machine I gave her last Christmas. The reels she had packed in her suitcase were stories of our family. Mostly they were rites of passage: a memorial service for my brother, who died in Vietnam; weddings, an ordination, a first sermon.

My parents had only three days to spend with me before busing on to Texas to visit my sister. There was much to talk about, especially my parents’ celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary in the summer. But it was the tapes that preoccupied my mother. She seemed relieved and satisfied when the transcribing was finally completed. Now her precious cargo was accessible to her.

I suppose the tapes will keep her company while she irons or makes quilts and clothing for Lutheran World Relief. Even my father may stay awake after long hours at the store to grieve again his older boy’s death or to celebrate his younger daughter’s wedding.

As I struggled with aging tape recorders and connecting jacks that would not fit together, this taping project seemed an insignificant but annoying task to me. But my mother was insistent. She was the custodian of these memories, the keeper of the family story. Later I wondered whether she was also putting things in order for handing on. It was no accident that I, the surviving son, was asked to monitor this transmission from tape to tape. It was a rehearsal. My mother is a biblical woman. “You shall tell these things in the ears of your children.” I loved her persistence and my father’s eloquent stillness at this time.

So many passages here! What are my parents doing, and what am I doing? I recall how I cried when my own family recorded our Christmas tape to be sent back to Nana and Grandpa. I come to see now that in my mother’s taping project I am helping her tell the family story, aiding her in what she must accomplish. My parents are beginning their eventual last passage, and I am invited to be an oarsman.

I have learned about passages from them. Indeed, my mother keeps my own passages closet to her heart than I do. The congratulation cards and crisp five-dollar bills arrive from Iowa to mark my milestones. When the last passage comes for them, as it already has with cruel unexpectedness for my brother, the family will know how to act, how to keep community, how to tell our story. My parents have taught us well to own our history, to hold it in treasure. When they die, we shall weave the plot lines to their conclusion, as we already have learned to do.

But what of other people? What of those who want to recover the last passage, but do not know how? Is it possible, even in our culture, to revision death, to recover the last passage? Could we help people learn to tell publicly who they have been, what they have wanted to mean? Is there a language, are there rituals to aid this recovery?

I want us to recover the last passage. I want to evoke a vision of how we could again, or for the first time, take hold of our living and dying and death and distill it into a fitting memorial.

There are obstacles to such a venture. The decline of “public man,” the loss of a language that can bear larger meanings, the neglect of ritual and symbol in a technological and alienated culture, the privatization of life pilgrimage, the professionalization and marketing of this and other passages. All these have contributed to the destruction of the rich culture and religious grounding necessary for meaningful passages. This trend has left the poor and marginal with nothing; others are offered banality.

But hopeful signs are emerging. The death-awareness movement of the past two decades has awakened consciousness, even if there remain a disturbing superficiality and a too-frequent satisfaction with technique rather than depth. I want to call us to pilgrimage, not tourism. Our growing wish to take charge of our lives, from creating our weddings to laying hold of participatory democracy, could reach fruition in our taking ownership of last passages. The hospice movement is another promising sign. The fact and possibility of mass death in our time may also evoke reflection on our living and dying; but it may also cause us, like frightened turtles, to withdraw our awareness and hide.

I suppose I should like to provide a magic flute for this passage. Even in our age of parapsychology and back-from-the-dead experiences, it does not seem likely that we shall plumb the beyond, make it graspable or even name it, except in those symbolic terms which have always been the significant contribution of religion. We in religious communities should help the common person with his consent at this time of life, her saying of the Yes that this rite of passage requires. To offer consent is a thoughtful act, a wager with meaning, a continuation of life story. The last passage as reflective, verbal enactment can evoke the meaningfulness that lies waiting to be discovered in our lives; that enactment can enrich human culture. As the struggles and celebrations of last passages seep into our common awareness, the level of spirit among us can be lifted up. We can be called to remark on mystery. This is a promise to keep.

A recent study shows that Jamaican women who have suffered the loss of a child tend to increase the size of their families by a factor of 2.6 times the average. What strange cultural artifact is this! Is this a wrestling with God, a struggling with the unknown, a form of social security? I think we must help people re-vision the funeral as a time for cultural outpouring. Let the last passage be a takeoff point from which we pour our spirits into the universe, thereby rooting ourselves in the larger human community. As Karl Rahner writes in On the Theology of Death (Seabury, 1973), “It is in death, and only in death, that man enters into an open, unrestricted relationship to the cosmos as a whole, that he is integrated, as a constant and determining factor. into the world as a whole, through his own total reality achieved in his life and death” (p. 63). I see people making great the truth of their lives by the size of their wonder.

I am calling us to help people with their stories. Although the theology of story has occupied theologians in recent years, none has taken the step to encourage men and women specifically to plan a last passage rite which will become the end of their story. No one has helped them plan for the time when they will draw the plot lines together as best they can, and have others who are remembering their passing say the lines -- and add their own. I have in mind something akin to the grief quilts women once created, for husbands, for children, for themselves, out of the diverse fabrics of lives lived. A grieving mother made a quilt with patches from all the colorful garb of her now departed young daughter. As the quilt took shape, the daughter’s purpose and vitality could come alive right there on the mother’s lap.

I am calling for more participation in such a quilting, and for quilts that celebrate as well as grieve. We need to be delivered from reductionism. The triteness of so many weddings, the sterility of so many funerals is appalling. One would think us humans simple beings; whereas to question our passages is to evoke mystery and wonder. The patches from our livings and our dyings guarantee that such a quilt will be rich in the commonalities of our everyday experiences. Such a celebration would touch the earth, if also summon the nightingale. There would be attention to the scenery against which our lives have been lived, the stage on which our lines have been spoken. In such a scenario we would not continue to seal off metaphysical concerns for the sake of dreamless childhoods or unhaunted middle ages. No, we would have learned to cultivate all the soil of our living and dying, the darker sides, too, and to pour our unutterable yearnings into cultural and religious expression.

Perhaps most important, we in religious communities need to invite people to see this rite of last passage as a possibility for completion, an opportunity to reach a sense of integrity about relationships and commitments, a time for homecoming. How cold it sounds to speak of death as an “unscheduled status passage.” How warm it is to beckon people to complete their unfinished business and pass on with their houses in order.

What does it mean to reach completion? The last passage may be seen as a public reformulation of our beliefs, of our solidarity with the living, of the integrity of the human project, of the continuity of covenant and society. To reach completion is to give God due and give our humanity due. To finish with life is an act of construction, of creating meaning. For the survivors it is the careful maintenance of meaning. It is the professor’s last lecture, the father’s last song for his son, the young woman’s parsing of the grammar of her mother, herself.

We should be creating models for brief re-entries among the living before the longer exit. The hospice movement has enabled the dying to leave the premature burial of intensive-care units and nursing homes and re-enter a community of human touch and care. I am calling for a kind of re-entry, after death and through a rite of last passage, for the sake of mutual accompaniment. While we are living and certainly while we are dying, we lay the preparations for such an event. Such a last passage could help undo some of the most unfortunate aspects of our death-denying culture, including the medical mind-set which has focused on cure and not helped us recover the meaning of care Conquering is not all! Through re-entry the one who has died is transformed from pariah to worthy storyteller. “I am Ishmael and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

How is all this to be accomplished? We must seek a language of finitude and limit, of transcendental imagination, of wonder and mystery. We can recall the language in which human striving and the quest for ultimacy are conceived and brought to life again. It is possible to recover rather than repress the lines from the old prayer, “If I should die before I wake.” We must provide resources which will invite the simple or eloquent telling of what it means to be touched “by the love that moves the sun and other stars” or the grief that plumbs the soul’s abyss. There are elements to help us sound the overtones to the melody of life, elements to portray a transfigured night, elements for homecoming. We can model a communal reflection which occurs against a beckoning horizon of meaning.

In short, this is a call to awaken ordinary people to the possibility of creating their own memorial of their living and dying; a call to offer gifts to the future. It is a plea not to scorn ritual and leave the survivors with no path to follow. At the end, she shared her experiences and became useful again. Her hand was still warm so I took it and said good-bye. The last passage becomes a testament to the meanings we have found and a place of rest for travelers still on pilgrimage.

I would like to see awakened in churches, families, memorial societies and other institutions a thirst for such a project and a readiness to assist those who may wish to set out on it. The church, in particular, is a custodian of the language of transcendence, an heir to a rich tradition of rites of passage. I believe churches have hardly begun to offer their expertise, their inheritance, their faith, their care to their own members and to the community (which often comes calling in the time of death). We in religious communities have more to offer than rites lifted thoughtlessly from prayer books and stiffly performed in ways that really do not recognize the passing of a human person. It is time to create rich rites of passage which give God and the community and, the mourners and the one who has died their dues There are rich treasures to be unpacked. Perhaps there is a new readiness to appropriate them for a religious and cultural outpouring. Perhaps there are individuals and families who are ready to claim their own roles and participation in such rites. For once, let the churches lead!


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