The author Shannon Alder once noted that we should carve our names on hearts, not on tombstones.
At Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory in Lewisville, Texas, we find ourselves dealing with those who have already passed away, the funeral directors they have chosen, the burial or cremation plans which have been made.
But the stories we hear in our work frequently have to do with the life of the loved one who is deceased — and often those stories concern the manner in which they have lived their lives, particularly during the time period just prior to their death.
Most interesting of those stories are about the people who have known their end was near.
Years ago, we had a close friend who received a horrible diagnosis — pancreatic cancer, a monstrous killer, a true death sentence.
His immediate reaction was to buy a grave, set about ordering his affairs and conducting business right up to the last moments.
Unfortunately, given the nature of this illness, he did not live long enough to accomplish everything he wanted to in those final months. The time frame he was given by his doctor — not faulting this professional, because in these matters educated guesses remain just guesses — was significantly off. Two short trips that had been planned never took place.
We will never forget the bravery and total lack of denial our friend displayed: he truly was more concerned about how his family was dealing with the issues than the plight he was facing.
Esteemed clinical psychologist, Andrew Kneier, has written a wonderfully insightful book called “Finding Your Way Through Cancer.”
Among his findings is that people who are dying frequently want to discuss their experiences, their impending deaths, but family members and friends sometimes, though the best of intentions, don’t allow it. Avoiding the topic, as unpleasant as it may be, is perhaps not the best path to follow — letting the loved one speak about it in an open, frank fashion may be the healthiest option.
In the case of our friend who died, he certainly had much to say: and again, much of it was focused on those closest to him.
Kneier, who has been a therapeutic part of thousands of deaths, has discovered a cluster of subjects those who are on the verge of expiration want to talk about. Those include loving and being loved; their faith orientation; pride in the solid accomplishments they have had; gratitude for having the opportunity to have lived and to have had specific positive experiences; their legacy or contributions they have made to the lives of others; and what they could do before death to enhance the lives of others — thus giving them a peaceful death.
Kneier’s theories are certainly consistent with the death events we at Martin Oaks have seen. Whether it is a decision about cremation vs traditional services and burial, or just completing all the arrangements in advance, these steps seem to bring closure.
A poignant example of Kneier’s work is currently on very public display with the announcement last week that Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Washington Post and cable news commentator, Charles Krauthammer, is dying from stomach cancer. In an open letter to readers, viewers and friends, Krauthammer stated that he may have only a few weeks to live.
Let us make it clear that we are not, in any way, endorsing his political views — this is strictly about the subject of death.
A Harvard medical school graduate who had a very distinguished career in psychiatry, Krauthammer is no stranger to overwhelming health problems. In his first year in medical school, a swimming pool diving accident sent him to the hospital for 14 months, eventually confining him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
After he turned to politics in his mid-thirties, Krauthammer fought through what could have been a depressing, life-sapping injury, to become one of the most celebrated thinkers of this age.
But it was his letter last week that really summed up his approach to life and death — very much in keeping with the Kneier hypotheses.
Krauthammer expressed gratitude for the life he had, spoke of the consequence of his work, and in a very clinical manner, accepted the verdict of fate.
Kneier’s writing and the grace Krauthammer has demonstrated both provide much needed food for thought about the meaning of final disposition.