Visitation with the Dying: What We Can Learn

This posting from the issue of Liturgy dealing with “Death and the Liturgy” lifts up the ministry with the dying practiced by a Lake Chelan Lutheran Church in Washington.  

Saint Benedict’s famous Rule, which has guided communities of faith for over 1,500 years, advises the faithful to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” [Rule of Benedict, Rule #4, point #47] . . .  In the face of death, priorities get rearranged. Sometimes keeping death before our eyes gives us the courage to do the hard thing. Sometimes that hard thing may be to let a habit, a desire, a restraint, a self-concept, even a relationship end in order to embrace another path. . . 
 Because this change can be difficult, the church invites us into practices that help us to remember, to contemplate, and in fact, to sit with death. Once each year, for instance, on Ash Wednesday, we remember we are dust and will return to dust. Ashes rubbed onto our foreheads thrust us into appropriate humility by confronting us with our fundamental substance: dust, soil, humus. This realization is surely why a pastor administering ashes sees such ponderous expressions on people’s faces on that day. We line up for the ashes in order to be confronted by what is coming. We do it individually, singly, receiving the ashes alone, and yet we come to receive them in the company of our sisters and brothers in Christ.
 At other times, as well, we face death. Throughout the year, Christians are called to visit those who are sick or dying. This ministry, this practice, often means looking death in the eye and growing spiritually because of it. Recently, while editing material for a book on funerals, one contribution drew my attention to the far-ranging consequences of ministry with the dying. [Melinda A. Quivik, ed., In Sure and Certain Hope: A Funeral Sourcebook (Augsburg Fortress, 2017)]
 Pastor Paul Palumbo of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church in Chelan, Washington, described the congregation’s experience visiting with, conversing with, and eventually simply sitting with church members who were dying. When congregation members realized that a number of people in their church, nearing the end of life, were in hospice or nursing homes and in varying stages of dementia, they began an intentional ministry of accompanying the dying. Some people they visited had the ability to converse and pray; others had passed beyond the civility of normal chatting. None of them, the congregation believed, should be ignored by the church with its great treasures of reassurance. But it was not always easy.
 To facilitate its ministry with dying people, the congregation published Peace at the Last: Visitation with the Dying (Augsburg Fortress, 2016), a slim book of psalms, prayers, songs, and elegant watercolors by congregation member Wendy Schramm. Visitation ministers take the book with them when they call on elderly church members because it gives them words and images to share, especially when calling on someone who may not have the capacity to speak.
 Attentiveness to those who are dying taught those engaged in this visitation ministry––and the congregation as a whole––that it is possible to accompany each other through the final days. The practice also taught them truths about living that freed them from the fear of dying and from the need to survive.

The full essay is available in Liturgy 33, no. 1 available by personal subscription and through many libraries.

Melinda Quivik, “Learning Together to Let Death Come,” Liturgy 33, no. 1 (2017): 56-62.

David Turnbloom