Tuesday, November 03, 2020

The Value of Life

Years ago our weekly Bible study talked at length about death and one week had the assignment that everyone should plan his own funeral and explain that to the others. (We were 22-32 at the time.)  A pattern quickly emerged, especially among the men. I don't care what you do with my body.  Put it in a pine box and dump it in the ground.  Heck, just put it in a sack and throw it overboard somewhere.  However, when discussing the bodies off those they loved, their wives and children, all this changed. The idea of someone not treating those bodies with respect was troubling, even provoking anger. 

I think both of these reactions are standard for humanity.  We have long treated the bodies of the dead with respect, thousands of years before we could write or farm or domesticate animals.  Yet human history has also involved putting our bodies at risk for causes that are not always clear.  For family certainly. 

I thought of this contrast when I read Brad's comment under my post Covid link by Lyman Stone. He is at one level completely correct and I immediately understood and assented.  I would like the modest inheritance we have gathered to go to our children, not slowly get eaten for expensive care and treatment for a person who is no longer me. Yet I would spend that gladly when we are talking about my wife, and would just tell the kids to suck it up, if there were the least murmur about it. (Which there wouldn't be.  They might be even more protective than I am.) The shell of her body deserves great affection, even if she no longer inhabits it.  We feel the same way about children who die before their time.  What monster of a parent would not proceed with all solemnity, even knowing that the spirit has fled.  I tear up just thinking about it.

He also mentioned, acknowledging that it was harsh, that the elderly are our least productive citizens.  I am aware of this as well.  I have measured my own worth by usefulness, no matter how many sermons I have heard otherwise and how many times I have tried to reset my evaluation on a more Christian basis. To be merely draining resources, providing nothing back to the world, horrifies me. Why else to be alive, if not to be of use? When I had my first Alzheimer's patient, a woman of 49 who had an early dementia, I came home and told my wife. "If I ever get this, just shoot me. This is not a life."

Yet when I turn my gaze outward, I know this is false. Children are not productive. The disabled are only partially productive, sometimes a net loss by cold equations. There are deeper questions.  What is the value of kindness, or joy, or beauty?  And even if all these things have fled and the remaining barely-animated corpse is all that remains, demanding and ungrateful, might there not be some value to simply being human?  When denominations or even secular organisations try to develop an overarching declaration on the value of life, they so quickly get distracted into including all other, lesser causes on the list.  What about the marginalised?  You aren't saying enough about women here. Our society doesn't value the invisible, like the undocumented. We should say something against war, or the death penalty, or world hunger. They do this not because they are more kind, but because they wish to disguise their our cruelty toward those humans. The Roman Catholics aren't immune to this, but I think they have done better. The Orthodox Jews perhaps as well. The Eastern religions are notoriously terrible at this. All life is valuable because God has assigned us value. Aged, comatose, preborn, all have value.  Weighing that value against other values may still be a part of wisdom, but the value is immovably solid.

In a secular society, governments must look at such questions as whether these deaths are only the six-month hastened passings of nonproductive humans. However, I don't have to adopt that secular attitude (unless I am hired as a government arbiter of some sort), I don't have to vote that way, and I can make it as difficult as possible for you to act that way.  Take me to court, if you will. No problem. If you come to me and try that argument about it only being the old at risk, so let's not worry, I will recognise that in each of us speaking for ourselves only, this is wisdom. But I will also note that because of what this means for my wife, my friends, and millions of useless people, you have left the moral considerations behind.  Next time it will be infants, the time after that it will be those with Down's Syndrome, and who knows who it will be after that? Societies frequently decide whole categories of people have lives of no value.


Donna B. said...

You've addressed a lot with this post. Right now, I'm responding to the first paragraph -- treating bodies with respect.

Don't denigrate the pine box. During an interview* with my father some 30 years ago, he spoke about how there used to always be lumber on hand to build a casket before there was a funeral home in that rural Arkansas area. He wasn't real clear on who organized this, but sawmills were abundant there. When he knew he was dying, he told us that he'd like a pine box but he didn't think we could get one. We found him one, though much more elaborate than he described. It was the least expensive casket the funeral home offered, but it was pine.

There's no one right way to treat a body with respect. Some people tell you in very subtle ways what they might wish. My husband and I somewhat accidentally ended up at a Veteran's cemetery one afternoon where he spent a long time at the columbarium. He commented several times about how peaceful it was there. He was cremated and is there now.

When my son died, I considered cremation but just felt it was wrong. We'd made the decision to donate organs and tissues before he was taken off the ventilator. I still can't explain it rationally, but it seemed appropriate to let the rest of his body go as naturally as the law would allow, so I didn't have his body embalmed.

*My oldest daughter's high school history teacher assigned his students to interview the oldest person they knew. Her great-grandmother was that person. When my father heard about it, he said he wanted to be interviewed too. She ended up also interviewing him, her grandmother, and her great aunt. It seems they were all waiting for someone to ask them about their lives.

DirtyJobsGuy said...

Well said, but there is a difference with elderly adults. It’s hard as one of the adult children to avoid wanting to protect them as you would a child. But they are adults even if diminished in reasoning or strength. Their choices still govern. There is also a good time to die. That time is not our’s or the state’s to decide but it is still there. I find that men understand this more than women. This may be why its harder with pets because in our minds they are like children and we are always responsible for them.

When one of my business partners died the Catholic Priest did a mediocre eulogy even though my friend was an active parishioner. More interesting was the extreme feminine choice in hymns and talks. I came away feeling that there was no recognition of a life’s work and responsibilities, no saying “good job, you’re now relieved of duty” or more.

Sam L. said...

My wife was cremated. I will be, too, and put next to her,