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Conversation Sabbath prompts us to discuss death, despite our fears

Posted on 11/14/2015

Chicago Tribune — Nothing better defines the needed context, value and meaning of life as much as the inevitability of death. Yet we choose to collectively ignore this existential fact.

Nine of 10 Americans believe it’s important to talk about death and end-of-life issues, yet only a third of us have done it, according to The Conversation Project. The Boston-based not-for-profit organization encourages candid discussions on a topic we’d rather pretend doesn’t exist. Until we can’t pretend any longer.

Death scares us that much. Even the mere mention of it frightens us.

So what better time than now — Halloween weekend and Day of the Dead — to shed light on its darkness. To crack open the crypt of discussion about death and openly view the corpse.

“It’s not easy to talk about how you want the end of your life to be. But it’s one of the most important conversations you can have with your loved ones,” states The Conversation Project website.

The Project began in 2010 when Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ellen Goodman and a group of colleagues gathered to share stories of “good deaths” and “bad deaths” within their own circle of loved ones.

“As one minister said to me, everyone in my congregation wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there,” Goodman said in a statement.

It sounds like an old joke, yet so does the idea of a rabbi, a pastor and a minister breaking bread while talking about death. However, this is precisely the notion behind the Conversation Sabbath, an occasion for communities of faith to have honest discussions about grief, mortality and the end of life.

Beginning Friday, Nov. 6, churches and places of worship across the country are invited to take part in the 10-day campaign. I’m not aware of any Northwest Indiana churches or places of worship formally taking part in this project, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take part in its message.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Buddhist or Jewish. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist, agnostic or skeptic. Death is the great equalizer, converting us all at some point regardless of our divisive beliefs.

The Conversation Sabbath encourages us to initiate a conversation through sermons, forums and roundtable meetings. Or breakfast chats, lunchtime discussions or dinner presentations. It doesn’t matter when, where or for how long. It only matters why.

Why we should explore the most sensitive of subjects, for example. Why we should do it now, when death is an abstract concept, not a heartbreaking reality in our life. Why we need to understand that death is as much a human experience as life itself.

The Conversation Project offers a “starter kit” at its website, found here http://theconversationproject.org/starter-kit/intro/, with ideas, information and insights.

Where do we start on our own? By asking questions we typically only think about alone at night before we fall asleep. By sitting down with loved ones and sharing our feelings of fear and faith. By no longer pretending like children that death doesn’t exist.

For many years I’ve been fascinated with death and dying. Not because I’m afraid of dying. But because I’m deathly afraid I’m not living enough.

Am I spending my time wisely? Am I making a difference of any kind? Am I wasting my time pondering such weighty matters rather than laughing at mindless TV shows? Possibly.

I wonder how many readers of this column will die before I do. I’m 53 and generally in good health. Most newspaper readers are from my generation and generally older than me, I’d guess.

Nevertheless, I could get killed today in a car crash while a 73-year-old chain-smoking, booze-drinking extreme sportsman keeps truckin’ down the road to old age. That’s the beauty of death. That’s the ugliness of death. That’s the significance of death.

We are a species of “significance junkies,” an intriguing term credited to Carl Sagan. And there is no grander significance than dying.

In our endless efforts to make sense of our mixed up, muddled up, shook up world, we try to attach patterns and reasons to everything we see or experience. This is why religion is so attractive, to help us make sense of it all, even if its answers only lead to more questions.

Trouble is, not everything has meaning to it, let alone profound or philosophical meaning. Sometimes things … just … happen, either randomly, accidentally or insignificantly.

Not death though. It matters. It matters so much we pretend it doesn’t. It’s how we cope. But it’s not working well for us.

Too often when the grim reaper lurks in the shadows of our life, we are ill-prepared to deal with it. More importantly, our loved ones are left blindsided. Worse yet, they’re left blind to what could have been said months or years earlier.

We can change this, starting today.

On Sunday, millions of people will celebrate Day of the Dead, also known as Día de los Muertos, when the souls of children who have died are welcomed back. The next day, Día de los Angelitos, is when the souls of adults return. This weekend also ushers in All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, two high holy days of the Catholic Church.

Regardless of your faith or beliefs, this is an appropriate moment to begin a long-overdue conversation on death and end-of-life issues. Plus, with daylight saving time kicking in this morning, it gives us an additional hour to discuss this tender subject.

Don’t be afraid. It’s only death after all.

Read the full article in the Chicago Tribune.