Whistling past the graveyard

"Whistling past the graveyard" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

W.Y. Evans-Wentz, ed., The Tibetan Book of the Dead (new edition)

Straight from the horse's mouth, with useful explanations of how this famous book came into existence, but a difficult read. The book does clarify the Tibetan Buddhist conception of the three intermediate states between life and death. The crucial question is whether the deceased can correctly identify what is reality and what is not during the weeks after his death, when he is blown around by karmic forces and encounters 42 peaceful deities but 58 wrathful ones.

Gehlek Rimpoche, Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation

This well-written book sugarcoats some of the less-attractive Buddhist themes, but shows how Buddhists have a sense of ingrown human sin superior to that of other nonbiblical religions. For example: "Anger pops up effortlessly, like toast out of a toaster. It's a habit. We may think we don't like getting angry but deep down ... anger gives us a temporary sense of satisfaction.... This is very difficult to see. Most of us deny it. If satisfaction weren't part of it, we wouldn't get hooked to the point where if we don't get angry, we become restless."

Jewish approaches

Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning

In this well-written, expanded version of his 1969 book, Rabbi Lamm summarizes Jewish customs from the moment of death through the funeral service and the year afterward. His explanation of the logic of resurrection is one that Christians could also use: "The belief in a bodily resurrection appears, at first sight, to be incredible to the contemporary mind. But when approached from the God's-eye view, why is rebirth more miraculous than birth? ... The idea of rebirth may appear strange because we have never experienced a similar occurrence." (Christianity, of course, has.) Rabbi Lamm also wonders, "If we ask of God only that He be just, can we expect that we ourselves will be resurrected? Who is so righteous as to be assured of that glorious reward? Hence, we call upon God's mercy that He revive us." (But on what basis do we call upon that mercy?)

Anita Diamant, Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead & Mourn As a Jew

Similar to Rabbi Lamm's book, with some generally applicable, homey touches. "Use the words dead and death. Terms like passed away or eternal rest are confusing to children.... Saying 'Grandpa died because he was sick' or 'Grandma died in the hospital' can create the fear that all illness leads to death or all hospital stays are fatal.... Be as specific as possible: 'Grandma's heart stopped working. Lots of times, doctors can help people with sick hearts get better, but sometimes, especially when people are very old, there is no medicine that works. That is why she died."

Neil Gillman, The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought

This useful introduction to a range of Jewish thought shows how different the Muslim and Jewish ideas of heaven are at different extremes. The medieval Jewish sage Maimonides lived among Muslims, knew their thinking well, and despised the idea of heaven as a place where "one eats and drinks [amid] beds of silk," where "rivers flow with wine and fragrant oils." Many Jewish sages have argued, like Buddhists, that "the body distracts us from intellectual striving and tempts us to seek the demeaning satisfactions of the body instead of the spiritual delights of philosophy. The ultimate conclusion of that position is that death is the final, longed-for liberation from the demands of the body."

Christian approaches

Richard John Neuhaus, As I Lay Dying

Rev. Neuhaus is one of the romantic realist writers of our day, and here he describes how he almost died and what he learned. He realized, "Our lives are lived in a succession of present moments, and the trick is to slow down the pace at which one moment is succeeded by another. 'Be still, and know that I am God,' says Psalm 46.... Having never stopped to live the present moment, we one day run out of present moments and discover we have not lived at all." This account, alternately gripping and reflecting, offers good news: "The truth is indestructible and the soul is capable of apprehending the truth."

George W. Bowman III, Dying, Grieving, Faith, and Family: A Pastoral Care Approach

Pastors do need help in dealing with their most difficult counseling task, but this poorly written book wanders over various aspects of psychology

Cornelius J. van der Poel, Sharing the Journey: Spiritual Assessment and Pastoral Response to Persons with Incurable Illnesses


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