Accompanying the Elderly and Dying – Death with Dignity. A Maronite Perspective

 

The way we look after the elderly and vulnerable has changed dramatically in just a generation. In many countries care has become more institutionalised and that has bought with it challenges as this recent article from Australia demonstrates. The quality of institutional care will depend on many variables. It will depend on the resources and commitment of families, communities and countries as a whole.

On a spiritual level, as societies become more and more secularised we have seen another change. The ‘sanitisation’ of death and end of life care. Previously families would accompany the elderly and dying at home. In many countries, this is no longer the norm and it has had an impact on the way we deal with death and the way we grieve.

For various reasons, end of life care, in many cases, is no longer provided in the home. We don’t ‘accompany’ the dying as we once did. As some authors put it, ‘death literacy’ has been lost. The idea of accompanying the dying and the dead is in some cases being approached in fear. Even death itself is hidden, with funeral directors making the arrangements that had previously been undertaken by families and Deacons.

There is important end of life events that we are sometimes missing. Maronite spirituality regards life and death as part of one’s spiritual journey to the heavenly kingdom. We live in that hope for our loved ones who are dying and for those who are deceased.

I remember towards the end of her life, my grandmother lived with us for some time. She spent her days praying the rosary, singing hymns and remembering stories of long ago. At times she was speaking to people who were long dead. As young children, we would sit at her feet and repeatedly ask her to chant “Ya Oum Allah” (O Mother of God) to us. Through her, I learnt to chant it myself in Arabic. We also watched and helped as our parents cared for her. She later died in my uncle’s house. I remember seeing her when she died, still in the bed where she laid. Seeing her like that gave me real peace. I had never actually seen a dead person before.

I was reminded of this recently when the mother of one of my friends was dying. She lived with my friend in the family home right up until she died. Carers would come into the home and assist my friend and her siblings with their mother’s care. One night she had a small episode and was rushed to hospital. As is so often the case with the elderly, one episode triggers another and what may start as a minor situation quickly spirals into a major one. My friend rang me crying to get a priest to the hospital. Her mother had suffered heart failure and a seizure. As is so often the Maronite reaction, prayer and the last rites were now paramount. I had been with my friend the day before when her mother’s condition had not been as serious. She had told me that her mother was all of a sudden talking to her deceased husband and deceased son. They had both died years earlier. Neither of us knew what was going to happen the next day and that her mother’s situation would quickly deteriorate. It is now clear to both of us that my friends mother was actually preparing herself for her spiritual journey to her heavenly home. I also now realise that speaking to loved ones who have passed is part of our end of life experience.

I went to the hospital to see if there was anything I could do for my friend. When I got there, I found the dying women surrounded by her family, partially awake to the situation around her. It became clear to me and the Priest that subsequently visited her, that my friends mother had resolved that this was the end of her earthly journey and that she was embracing her final suffering in preparation for the start of her journey to her heavenly home. The next day she died, surrounded by her children and grandchildren in love, care and prayer. That is death with dignity.

The Maronite View of Death

In the Maronite tradition, the time immediately after death is also experienced by loved ones as a journey. In villages, death often occurred at home. Everyone from young children to the elderly witnessed it. Whole families would ‘accompany’ their dying in prayer and in care as the dying person’s earthly life was ending and their journey to their heavenly home was beginning. This is also very apparent in the Maronite liturgies for the deceased.

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The Maronite icon for the “Sunday of the Faithful Departed”

The Maronite icon for the “Sunday of the Faithful Departed” encapsulates the Maronite view of death as a journey.

The icon depicts the departed person in a boat. As we hear in the incense hymn, the boat is representative of Mary, the treasure ship, who assists us as we journey through the dangerous seas of fire to heaven. For some of us (depending on how we lived our life on earth) the journey is more dangerous and treacherous than others. Mary is depicted as a boat because she is the vessel through which God was made Man. In the boat is Christ, represented by the bread and wine which has been consumed by the departed to give them life. Christ even now, accompanies the departed on the journey to heaven.

The traditional Maronite funeral rites are made up of distinct parts known as stations. The first station was celebrated in the home. Until recently (and absent funeral houses) the body of the deceased would remain at the home and people would remain with the body (exposed) until it was carried to the Church. Bodies now remain in funeral houses until being taken to the Church and the coffin is closed. Not everyone necessarily visits and sees the dead body. The incense prayer was chanted at the place where the family was gathered with the body to receive condolences. The incense hymn recognizes that through Christ, faithful souls will rise to the great reward of life in heaven. The second station is at the Church. In villages, the body would be carried on the road from the home to the Church with hymns and prayers sung on the way. The clergy meet the body at the entrance of the Church and incense it, bringing it together with the mourners into the Church. At the Church, the funeral service comprising of Psalms and prayers, are full of hope, reminding the mourners that Jesus defeated death. This reminder provides comfort and eases the pain of believers. The living pray, that the faithful departed may be raised like Christ from their sleep into eternal life. The third station is at the grave where further prayers and hymns are sung. Again, hymns were sung on the road to the grave and death.

We also continue to pray for our dead, long after they are buried. Significant memorial days were previously held on the third, ninth and fortieth day. Memorial services were also held on the yearly anniversary of the burial.

The significance of the days, are explained by Patriarch Estephan Doueihi (1704), in the “Lamp of the Sanctuary”:

“We celebrate the Divine Service [on behalf of the dead] on the third day, because the Lord rose from the dead on the third day, thus becoming the first-born and head of those who fell asleep; on the fortieth day because he ascended into heaven after forty days; on the ninth day because [the departed] become “companions” of the nine choirs of the angels, and mostly because the Lord sent the Spirit Paraclete to the apostles nine days after his ascension, that he might lift up their spirits and give them courage; last, at the end of the year: as we commemorate, each year, the feast (literally, birth) of the saints, the departed [are remembered] because they share with them everlasting life.” [1]

As a young child, my parents never allowed us to leave at the end of Mass early if there was a memorial Mass and the incense prayer was being chanted, even if we did not know the family of the deceased. Our prayers for the deceased accompany them on their journey. We also live in that hope that others prayer’s will accompany us on our journey.

So what are some ways we can help the elderly and dying?

Advocate for them

We know that in many circumstances looking after the elderly and dying at home is not possible. It is better for them to be in care than to have them at home and neglected. However, that does not mean we should forget them. Visit regularly and make the visit’s meaningful. Feed them, pray with them and speak with them. Take children to see them. Children seeing end of life is a very important preparation for them to deal with grief in life. The elderly and vulnerable often struggle to advocate for themselves and you may need to do it for them. If you see something wrong in care, challenge it and question it. Something as simple as a urinary tract infection can very quickly get out of hand.

Families are complex. Many of them carry wounds and emotional scars they have sustained over a lifetime. Sometimes end of life situations can inflame those wounds. Be mindful of that and think of ways to deal with those situations without making it more uncomfortable for the dying. You will have to live with the consequences of your actions.

Also remember those who may not have anyone to care for them. Communities have become more fragmented. Some people don’t even know who their neighbour is and there are people who have no one.

In Matthew 20: 40-46 we are reminded of our final judgement:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

It is our Christian duty to help those who are sick and in need, including strangers. We will have to answer for that at judgement.

Most importantly, as a society we need to advocate for the care of our elderly and the dying. We must demand that they are allowed to die with dignity, love and care. We must advocate for adequate health care, accommodation and social care for all, so that each person can die with dignity.

Pray and Care for the Dying

We should never underestimate the power of prayer, both for the living and the dead. We also need to allow our children and families witness us praying and caring for the dying and the dead. Death is a part of the natural journey of life. We live in a world where often death has become so clinical. Some children will never even see an animal slaughtered for their food. We need to keep death real and remind those around us it is natural, even if it causes hurt through grieving. Grieving is also normal.

Reconsider our Traditions

I have often heard people frustrated by the Maronite tradition of ‘receiving condolences’. However, the tradition is not just about receiving condolences. It gives the families, loved ones and community the opportunity to unite to pray for the deceased.

Further, remember the practice of memorial masses. There is nothing to prevent memorial masses many years after a loved one  has died. Remembering our deceased and praying for them and asking them to pray for us is an important part of our own spiritual journey.

Ultimately as Maronites we take comfort in what Jesus said:

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

Father Yuhanna recently preached a beautiful homily at a Memorial Mass of a young boy who had died some years earlier. Listen to it here.

In Christ

Theresa Simon

[1] More information on the funeral Rites can be found about the Maronite Funeral Rites in the “Book of Ginnazat” – Diocese of St Maroun – USA at

https://maroniten.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/maronite-funeral-rites.pdf )