Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

by Christian Rodriguez

 

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

 

In between episodes of Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation on Netflix, I came across the Oscar-nominated documentary End Game. This production highlights the experience of individuals and their families as they come to terms with the reality of death. This deeply personal and spiritual film raises significant and inescapable questions about our relationship to its subject matter.

At the very beginning of the film, one of the doctors on a palliative care team remarks, “I think it’s healthy people who think about how they want to die and sick people who think about how they want to live.” This line immediately reminded of an experience I had while serving as a hospital chaplain this past summer.

 

A young patient in my care was expressing a sense of remorse about all the things that she would miss out on because she never expected to be in the hospital with cancer. Accompanying her as she came to terms with her situation was an incredible privilege, as she eventually learned to have a different relationship with death, making the experience of transitioning out of this life easier for her. She realized that by having a relationship with death, it became less of an unknown and subsequently less scary.

 

The unknown and the uncontrollable are two facets of the mystery of death which End Game highlights. There is a beauty to the film because it by no means pretends to answer the questions that it raises. Rather, it challenges us to think of the ways in which we might hold onto the mystery that is death.

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We are challenged to do this as Catholics, especially as we enter into the Lenten season. We have no misgivings about what happens at the end of Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert, which Lent commemorates. Jesus enters into Jerusalem to suffer death. For him, as with all of us, death does not have the final word.

 

In the rite for the Commendation of the Dying, we pray: “To you, O God, the dead do not die, and in death our life is changed, not ended.” In the Creed, we confess our belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” The resurrection that we await at the end of Lent is a reminder of the final resurrection we place our hope in.

 

This belief can offer us some peace and hope as we try to conceptualize death. Of course, this may not completely assuage our fears of the unknowable and uncontrollable reality. Even the most faith-filled patients that I knew as a hospital chaplain experienced some fear of death.

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The one thing we can do about it is to learn how to hold on to the mystery, to enter into some kind of relationship with it. It is something that even Jesus had to do. In the Garden of Gethsemane, before He was arrested, Jesus prayed that the Lord might take the bitter cup of death away from Him. It is the same prayer that is on the lips of the patients and families in End Game. It was the very same prayer in the mouths of many of the patients I accompanied through the dying process. To desire anything other than death is a very natural human instinct.

 

Learning to hold onto the mystery that is death brings us to a new and different set of questions: How might I make the best of the time that I have left, regardless of how long or short that is? What do I value most in my life? How would I want to make a lasting legacy? What does it truly mean to live?

 

Reflecting on death throughout Lent may be a challenge, but it can teach us how to live the “abundant life” (Jn 10:10) that God desires for us all. In this way, End Game is a challenging film because it brings us face-to-face with our mortality, leaving us with more worthwhile questions than answers.

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Featured image courtesy of Ryan Wiedmaier via Flickr


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