This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at email@example.com.
Death and the Young
In the summer of 1967, I began taking courses toward an STM in Ethics at my Theological Seminary, Union of New York, and an offering which I particularly enjoyed was titled "Death and Dying." It was taught by a Dr. Robert Neale. When I returned to college, I proposed such a course for Monmouth College; and Dr. Speel, chairman of the Department of Religion, gave me his blessing. Two of the materials of my Union course and Dr. Neale's introductory exercise became staples of the class which I offered annually until I retired in 1979. I used Dr. Kubler-Ross' great book, On Death and Dying (1966), and Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Illych," a long short story, published over a hundred years ago, which develops with remarkable accuracy the same steps in the Grief Process just definitively described in Dr. Kubler-Ross' book. Also my introductory assignment was Dr. Neale's first, "Write briefly (100 words or so) and honestly on the topic, 'My Own Death.'" I had these statements typed up and we listened together to what they said overtly and covertly about attitudes toward death.
Other central parts of my course were five page reviews of a changing list of books and a carefully researched ten page project which examined some aspect of death. In the final years of my teaching at Monmouth, I added a second project. The student must go to some older person, parent, grandparent, former teacher, friend, and speak carefully with this selected person about his or her personal experience of life and death. I hoped that this dialogue between the young and the older would bring about human closeness and also in my students an appreciation of the wisdom and strength in many older people. The project always worked, and I read with pleasure my students' expressions of admiration. This assignment led to one of the memorable moments in my Monmouth College life.
My wife and I were asleep when the scream of brakes and the loud crash woke us up. Knowing at once that students were involved, I slipped out of bed, dressed and started walking toward the campus. A short block from our home, I came to the road which edges the college, and the flashing lights led me at once to the Jeep crushed up against a telephone pole. Already the occupants of the car were on their way to the hospital. One of them, I was told, was dead at the scene. When I heard the name, I turned at once toward his fraternity.
I walked up the steps leading to the front door and entered an eerie silence. A student friend led me over to the fraternity brother sitting on the second step of a stairway. He was weeping. He was holding a small cross in his right hand, and I noticed the whiteness of his knuckles. I sat down beside him and put my arm around him. He was John's roommate.
The memorial service which I conducted was the hardest assignment of my fifteen years as college chaplain. The dark-jacketed fraternity brothers filled the two rows just behind the immediate family. A requirement of my Death class helped me personalize the service.
John was a tall, broad-shouldered, football type of person. I was a little bit surprised to see him sign up for my class. I found him faithful in attending classes; I noted that his book reviews were usually handed in on time. For his final project John had searched out his grandfather and arranged for a day of fishing together. During those hours his grandfather had talked of his experiences while his wife was dying of cancer. He had recited for John and then given him a copy of a poem which had comforted his grandmother in her final days of life. Now I could give this poem and its deep meaning for John back to his grandfather sitting just in front of me.
Another feature of my course was the annual series of "Open Seminars on Death." I always invited the community to join us for these programs. To them, I brought a parade of interesting guests. Here are the topics for a typical year: "Two Hospital Chaplains Look at Death and Grief," "The Customs of Death," "The Literature of Death," "Sudden Death," "Ministers Speak of Death," "The Elderly Share Their Experiences with Death," and finally, "Attitudes to Death."
Out of many special moments with our guests, three come vividly to mind right now as I am putting this material together.
Bob is a solidly built, conservative man with the reputation of being an exceptionally able teacher. Over the years, we have come to respect and even like each other although my world was always college oriented and therefore a little liberal for him. When he told my students the following incident, I was deeply moved.
John, his older son, had worked as a part time orderly in the local hospital. He hoped to become a doctor. One routine evening John left around ten, saying that he would be home very late. He had a lot of work to catch up with at the hospital. Gradually the Matson house fell silent. Suddenly Bob woke up, hearing a strange, soft sound. He checked his watch. It was one o'clock. The sound, he recalls, made him think at once of wings moving through the night air. Minutes later the phone rang. It was the police. John's car had been struck while crossing Highway Thirty-four. He was dead at the scene. Later it was discovered that the clock in the small, red, sports car had stopped exactly at one o'clock.
Carrol, a large, affable man, spoke quietly and firmly and with faith of a series of family tragedies which quite took my breath away. His oldest son was an outstanding high school athlete, good enough to win a football scholarship at the University of Michigan. Suddenly an apparently small physical problem was diagnosed as being terminal cancer. Then a younger son also developed a form of cancer which led to his death. And finally, Carrol's wife died of the same disease.
Then there was Orville Kelly, a newspaper man from Burlington, Iowa; a neighboring city. Mr. Kelly was diagnosed with terminal cancer and this moment, as he told us, was the beginning of a new life for him. His typical self-indulgence and aimlessness now turned into discipline and purpose as he suddenly faced the limited years ahead. He had founded a group for terminal people like himself and named it, "Make Today Count." He spoke to us with special eloquence of the amazing and beautiful world around us and of the adventures in love open to the bold and the caring. He challenged my students in that first of several visits to roll out of their comfortable beds the next morning and watch the majestic beauty of the rising sun. And the next morning, as I was hurrying to an early class, a student not known for his vigorous pursuit of life stopped me and said exultantly, "Chaplain, I did it. I saw the sun rise."
My students brought a wide range of attitudes toward death to my class. Let me illustrate with several statements from the many submitted over the years. They speak with poignancy of the young as the face the ultimate mystery of death.
Death seems to me living in another world. When I was a child, I used to think that I
didn't want to die. I believed that being dead was going to hell. But I changed my mind.
When I got on a lift watching a sunset, I thought that I didn't care if I was dead that
time because it was so beautiful; it was inexpressible. Since then, I'm never afraid to
die. . . . . . I do believe the other world would be beautiful.
I often wonder about death. I wonder if I've already sinned so much I'm beyond repair.
I am a strong believer in God, but I always catch myself wondering is my faith strong
enough. And if not, will my death lead me into everlasting hell or what.
My own death petrifies me. Having seen a seven and ten year old die, I find death hard
to cope with. The violence of death in taking such young, innocent boys' lives has placed
a fear inside me which is almost unbearable. The end is inevitable, I realize, but I'm in
I choose life. Warm room full of color, clothed in richness and love by
me. . . a touch of life and love in every square inch of it--corner to
corner, wall to wall, floor to ceiling--vibrating life rich and full. My people all around
me--smiling. I want no pity when I die. I want no sorrow. Why should I? I haven't stopped
I've had dreams of my death, and wakened up crying. Death to me means sadness, but not
fear. . . I would like to come back as a butterfly. . . it
is a comforting thought. . . .
Deep inside me I am not afraid of death. I live each day being with God. And I believe
that God is with me always.
I would be a liar if I said that I was not afraid of dying because I am. I am afraid of so many things. One often hears that dying is like entering a peaceful sleep from which one never awakens, but how can one be sure that this is the truth?
One of the major reasons for entering this course is to help me get over some of my
fears of death. I've experienced deaths and have yet to know one that has not been a
If I were told I had less than seven days to live, I would do the following: go home
and see my parents, spend a lot of time with my boyfriend, see my grandparents once, and
cry a lot. I'd also be very scared. I'd want it to be a quick death because I fear pain.
I hope to be an old woman who has lived a full life. Hopefully death will be without
pain and I won't be aware that it's coming. It would be beautiful to fall asleep beneath a
pine tree, high in the mountains, and to never wake up.
At the time of my death, I desire: that no one grieve on account of me; that no one be
allowed to see my dead body; that I be immediately cremated, my remains placed in an old
jar, and sold to a junk dealer; that no one ever mention my name again.
Sitting at the window sill on the seventh floor of a high rise in downtown Chicago just
counting the cops and caps and wondering why Nature has made things so hard to get at.
Thinking about jumping. But that would be as absurd as everything else. Death is as boring
as life. . . .
No more laughing or smiling. No more going to the Derby, Pinneys, anywhere for a few; no more work; no more love. No more playing basketball at the Y. No more driving, sweating, hoping, achieving. No more music. No more lasagna on Monday nights. No more schedules, driving around, softball or cards. Just no more--life--just a total absence of being,
DRIFTING AND FADING
Let me close these memories of a class which certainly taught me more than it did any
of my students with excerpts from three project papers. They reflect the breadth of
experience and sensitivity to life of many of the young people I came to know and admire
during my Monmouth College years.
This was the worst night I had ever lived for nothing could stop the hurt from running through the hearts of his family and his friends. Everybody looked as though the building was going to explode; only their tears and hurt couldn't be expressed enough, when they walked around during the night.
As the night began to move along, there was almost a complete silence in the building in memory of Charles. It seemed no one really cared about what was happening on the outside, and that it really didn't make any difference because Charles was dead and nothing could bring him back.
This was one of the loneliest nights I've ever lived because nobody ever said a word to anyone after he was killed. It was as though everybody had locked their lips, so they couldn't speak even if they wanted to.
My grandma had surgery last May. I prayed for her hoping they would fix her up like new so she wouldn't be sick anymore. My grandma never got sick. She was as strong as a horse, but she was also a "softy"; she was tender-headed and tender-hearted. She was also funny. When she called me, she put a high accent on the last syllable of my name--nobody else called me like that. When I think of her, I smile.
During the past six months my father carried us as often as possible to Birmingham, Alabama, to see her. We piled in the Cutlass on Friday afternoon, as many of us as could go, and headed south, never knowing what to expect.
When I was there, I usually sat up with her during the night, and late one night Grandma spoke to me of her own mother's death. . . . That night she taught me something about life that I will never forget. With tears in her eyes she reviewed the last weeks of her mother's illness (my great grandmother) and how she had vigilantly watched and prayed that her mother would regain her health, how she had nursed her mother to the end of her life. I see that I am watching my mother nurse and care for her mother until her death, and one day it may be my turn to nurse my mother or father until their death. It is a responsibility I must try to keep, to uphold the strength and sanctity of the family.
The entire family was there. A vast progeny of six children, their husbands and wives, twenty grandchildren, one of whom flew in from Hawaii, and nine great grandchildren. Grandma would have been so proud; she was the anchor of the family.
She lay silent beneath a blanket of beautiful red roses. She did not look like the
Grandma I will always try to remember. Her cheeks were abnormally swollen from a
medication she was taking towards the end. She was wearing a wig because she had lost all
her hair as a result of Cobalt treatments. She had a lovely orchid corsage on her left
shoulder. She was surrounded by the delicate fragrance of flowers. I was proud she was my
grandmother. I loved her.
I met this guy named P after about a week in Vietnam, and I soon learned the tricks of the trade, as they were called. P was from the West Coast, and as we seemed to like the same things, we developed a close relationship. P had been in Nam almost three years so I always listened to his advice when I was in doubt. Twice he had pulled me out of a bad time with the VC, and I knew that I would surely be dead but for him.
In early January 1969, our patrol was hit from four sides by the VC. P and I just happened to hit the same foxhole so I felt somewhat secure. For over two hours we got fire from the VC. P had figured out that there were at least thirty or forty VC looking to waste the five of us. Many times before we had been outnumbered by the VC so we didn't really feel threatened this time. After a while the shooting stopped and P and I started talking about his wife and two kids stateside and what he was going to do after the war. It was a short conversation that day for P. . . . P had asked me for a cigarette and while he was reaching over to get one, P got half his head blown off by some VC round. I began to scream at him to wake up, that he could not die and leave me there alone. The rest of what happened to me was related to me two days later when I awoke back at the base. They said that when P got hit, I went insane and came screaming out of my hole saying that those rotten bastards had nailed P, and they had no right to do this.
On January 24 at 7:15 while I was disarming a bomb, it exploded, and for the first time in my life I felt what I believe P felt when his death came. I felt a peace and calmness that I had never experienced in life. Like a great load had been taken off my back. If this was death, then I was ready to meet God. I couldn't hear the war that was all around me. The bombs that were busting in all directions had become silent. For me the war was over. I was either going to die or live, but whatever I was ready. That was the day of my rebirth. . . .
It has been seven years since this tragic happening, and I believe I have grown more since that date than in all of the years before I was hit. My vision was reduced to the point of ten percent and one hand taken off, but I was given the power to overcome all that might stand in the way of my goals.
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