On Death and Dying at UBC

Blaise Pascal commented on the propensity of people to avoid the great issues of life.  “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.  We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it.” (Pensees)

Plans to construct a fifteen-bed hospice in the UBC campus community have been delayed because of concerns by local residents.  The concerns fall into two categories: 1. Investment anxiety–will the proposed hospice reduce property values?  and 2. Death anxiety–will proximity to death and the dying bring misfortune to the residents because of exposure to ghosts or “bad luck?”  The residents in question believe the proposed project is culturally insensitive and inappropriate for the University to pursue.

I believe it is appropriate for the University to lead its community both intellectually and practically into the compassionate care of the dying.  In doing so I believe they will help us all live better.  As Gay Klietzke writes recently in the Vancouver Sun,

If we judge a society by how it treats its weakest, we would currently have to give Vancouver’s a failing grade. We provide schools, swimming pools and yoga studios to support the living in every neighbourhood, but fail to provide hospice homes and supporting programs that would allow the dying a similar opportunity to live their lives fully in their communities, to the end.

In addition to our vision, we have a dream: A hospice home in every neighbourhood in Vancouver. Not only would this fulfil a need, but it would also assist in normalizing the natural cycle of life. A cultural shift away from viewing death with aversion and fear, to a healthier focus on living life as fully as possible, to the last breath, will be a welcome result.

We live in an international city that is admired by many across the globe. By creating a ‘hospice culture’ in Vancouver we would model a culture of compassion for the world at large to follow.

As a church pastor and as a chaplain, my perspective on death and dying is being shaped by the Gospel of Jesus.

1.  The Gospel challenges our preference for the strong.

Generally those who are dying are viewed as “weaker” than the rest of us.  However, compassionate society recognizes the continuing worth and value of people even if they are not perceived to be a big contributor.  In fact Jesus indicates that our care for the weaker reflects the very heart of God for people.

In His great parable of The Judgement known as the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus said, “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?40 And the King will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  Matthew 25:37-40

The Gospel compels me to recognize God’s solidarity with the weak, poor, sick, and dying and their enduring value because of His love for us.  The movement toward hospice leans into this value and confronts our culture.

2.  The Gospel confronts our  preference to ignore our own mortality.

Our society has gone to extraordinary lengths to insulate itself from the reality of death.  The Gospel is God’s intervention in human history and participation in death, even death on a cross through Jesus Christ.  If Jesus was not spared the reality of death I am compelled to take seriously the reality that I am going to die.  Jesus regularly told stories of disturbance built around the reality of death and God’s judgement; these stories were intended to disturb the hearer’s misplaced sense of security.  Security in life would not be had by ignoring death, but rather by letting death compel one to think seriously about Jesus’ teachings and their implications for how we live.  Jesus used death to provoke awareness of our resistance to the first commandment.

We do a dis-service to  ourselves and the dying when we avoid death.  During a season in which people require honour they receive shame.  The “living” live without wisdom; we overvalue the small things and ignore the ultimate questions.  Hospice creates the space for a community to participate in the seasons of life and metabolize the lessons for living that dying may give us.

3.  The Gospel frees us from unmitigated fear of death and the forces of darkness.

In general, our western cultural and societal intellect tells us that “there is nothing else out there.”  However, we do maintain a curiosity about what others do accept as real.  “Superstition” and fear of spirits, darkness, evil, or bad luck is not difficult to uncover in our media.  Therefore, everyone of us who has experienced a wave of unmitigated fear in the middle of the night should find some empathy with our neighbours who fear that the presence of the dying will usher them into the presence of ghosts.

The Gospel declares that Jesus is Lord of both the living and the dead.  By faith in Jesus, the same power that delivered Him from death in His resurrection delivers those who believe from the powers of death.  The Apostle Paul inspired by the grace that has ushered him into a relationship with Jesus writes:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?36 As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.  37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Romans 8:35-38

While the Gospel also compels the followers of Jesus to fight for life, we also know that in Christ the sting of death has been removed.  Though death comes we know our final address is secure.  For the follower of Jesus death is not just the end.  Rather death for the Believer is a type of healing–in that we are then ushered into Jesus’ Presence, our faith becomes sight and we continue to enjoy the full benefits of eternal life in Christ.  Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”  John 5:24

While we may not “enjoy” being confronted by death and our own mortality, the Gospel of Jesus will gives courage to receive the gifts hospice brings to our communities and to participate in the development of communities full of compassion and wisdom.



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