Death and Dying in Pandemic Times

Lessons on death and dying from the Civil War.

Drew Gilpin Faust’s book, “This Republic of Suffering,” is so appropriate for our times, because it describes a sea change regarding how the view of dying changed during the Civil War. Faust, an historian, is the first female President of Harvard University; she is also the first President without either an undergraduate or graduate degree from Harvard, not mentioning that she is a Southerner.

Faust describes how the ideal death in America prior to the Civil War followed the pattern of the eloquent Anglican preacher and theologian Jeremy Taylor’s (1613-1667) “The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying.” Because of Taylor’s highly literate and poetic language, he is often dubbed “the Shakespeare of Divines.” As an aside, I can heartily recommend Taylor’s books.

The ideal way of dying for Colonial Americans was to expire in one’s own bed surrounded by one’s family, while offering one’s family reassurances that one was safely in the hands of Jesus as one prepared to leave this world. Death thus was not a lonely event, but one shared. For many, it was a religious experience. When one’s dying was complete, a proper religious funeral could then bring a sense of peace and reassurance to a mourning family.

The Civil War shattered this ideal. One’s family members were now far away when one often died en masse and unceremoniously thrust into shallow trenches, with no markers: One was just another anonymous casualty among many; one’s family had no notion as to what happened to you. No religious funeral took place. One’s family also had no reassurance as to whether one’s soul was prepared to meet God. It took several years before military cemeteries were established. Faust describes a fascinating and sad story of how the view of death in America changed forever.

In those days, death was a reality that all understood. Up until this moment, we in America have culturally pretended death is not a fact. We have avoided the whole idea of pain. Which is why this pandemic is such a shock to many of us. This pandemic has also once again rendered death as a lonely, isolated event in which many expire on ventilators in an alien environment of bright lights, blinking machines, tubes running in and out of one’s body, while unknown individuals in masks and gowns hover around one constantly. Some fortunate few have been able to facetime family members and say goodbye, but this is the exception, rather than the rule.

As I write this, the death toll in less than three months has climbed to over 61,000. Numbers not quite those of the Civil War, but each one in these grim numbers was someone’s wife, or husband, or mother, or grandmother, or grandfather, or friend, or child. Each was a person. And because so many have perished in a cold, impersonal way, so many have never had the chance to say, “I love you” to those they loved before they died. As the book of Ecclesiastes says, this is the season to mourn. We will be attempting to restart our economy soon. Even when this happens, people will still be perishing from this virus. Let us not forget that this is a season to mourn, and a season to refrain from embracing, as Solomon put it. As so many of you seek to spew invective, partisanship, and false rumors during this time, let’s please put these aside as we remember the very human toll that this virus is imposing upon all of us. Let us remember that this is a time to comfort, not a time to divide. As the bell tolls and will continue to toll for many, may our cry be, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”   

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