Death becomes us
Is there a purpose to all this suffering? What happens when we die? Conversations about heaven and nothingness
Doug Burnett’s twin daughters graduated from Christian Academy of Louisville on May 29, 2009. Co-valedictorian Ashley and her sister Brittany walked the aisle, collected diplomas and celebrated with their friends. But something was missing from the family ’s spring festivities: Mom.
Mary Burnett died of cancer less than a year earlier, on July 9, 2008.
“Mary had a pain — just a small pain — under her arm,” Doug Burnett said, remembering his wife’s six-year ordeal that began in 2002. “The doctor just said, ‘Well, you’re getting older.’”
Next came a coin-sized rash on one of Mary’s breasts. This time, her physician thought it might be more serious and ordered a few tests. Soon afterward, he sat down with Doug and Mary to deliver the tragic news: Mary was a victim of Stage IV Inflammatory Breast Cancer. This insidious, fast-growing form of the disease left her with six weeks to live.
“Our lives turned upside down with one word from a surgeon,” Doug recalled. “You go from where you think (everything is fine) … into super-aggressive chemo. It was devastating. It’s hard to tell your 11-year-old daughters that their mom might not be here in two months.”
Doug traveled with Mary to cancer centers in Tennessee, Indiana and New York for experimental treatments. Instead of living for six weeks, she forged ahead for almost six years after her diagnosis, hoping to survive long enough for her girls’ graduation from high school.
The price was steep: Mary suffered through radiation treatments, a mastectomy and almost constant chemotherapy. The cancer spread to her liver, lungs and spine. “She ended up with open tumors — open sores — all over her torso that just drained constantly,” Doug said. “We would spend about six hours a day changing dressings to keep her comfortable.”
Yet above all else, Doug remembers his wife’s joyful demeanor through her suffering. “I just look back at the way she handled herself and the example she gave to her daughters … I know it sounds like I’m putting her up on a pedestal, but she never — at least never to me — questioned why she had to go through this. Her attitude was such that you never knew the pain she was in.”
Mary spent her last four months confined to a wheelchair. In early July 2008, when it became clear that she had only days to live, Christian Academy arranged for a special early graduation ceremony. Her daughters donned caps and gowns in the hospice unit and celebrated their mother’s last wish.
Six days later, Mary slipped quietly away from life. Doug lost his best friend of 28 years.
Incredibly, Mary Burnett believed to the last that she wasn’t dying — not really. She maintained an incorruptible trust in heaven, a place with no more wheelchairs or chemotherapy.
“She couldn’t wait to be out of this body she was tormented with,” said her husband. He believes Mary’s faith in Christianity gave her the courage to fight cancer, the courage to maintain a positive attitude through immeasurable suffering — and the courage to let go. He praises God for extending her lifespan from six weeks to six years.
“She always believed — and I believe this, too — (life) is such a short time period when you look at eternity,” Doug said.
Of course, there is no tangible evidence Mary was right. Her body lies in a cemetery. Her husband and daughters carry on. Doug, Ashley and Brittany cling to their Christian faith, believing they’ll see Mary again — but won’t know for certain until they, too, enter the Undiscovered Country.
Since the dawn of history, humans have hoped for something beyond the finality of the grave. But in the absence of hard proof, do the remarkably strong beliefs of the Burnetts — and other believers like them, irrespective of creed or culture — amount to a kind of living evidence? Or are they nothing but wishful thinking in the face of tragedy?
The question is not academic. While we may hope to outlast Mary Burnett’s 48 years, each of us will one day find out if she was right or wrong.
Edwin F. Kagin grew up as the son of a Presbyterian minister. His father preached on heaven and ministered from Scripture. But somewhere along the way, Kagin ended up with a distinctly different view of the afterlife: Today, he is the National Legal Director of American Atheists.
“I did a very disastrous thing,” Kagin said wryly, “something the Catholic Church thoroughly discourages: I read the Bible.” He pointed to passages of Scripture that repulsed him, like the tale from Judges 11 of a man who apparently killed his daughter to fulfill a vow to God.
He doesn’t doubt the sincerity of those who, like the Burnetts, believe in an afterlife — “they could probably pass polygraphs,” he said. Yet he maintains that God and heaven are myths. “(Heaven) is a wish-fulfilling type of thing,” he said. “It’s magical thinking; it’s like having imaginary friends.”
Kagin recalled the passing of Joseph T. Ray, one of his closest friends. The well-known Louisville judge was also an atheist, and during his 63rd year, he called Kagin with the news that he was suffering from pancreatic cancer. The prognosis was grim: Ray had only 30 days to live.
“I said, ‘You’ve had a good life,’” remembered Kagin. “He said, ‘Yes, and a very happy one.’ There was no discussion of the afterlife at all.” Ray spent his last days making funeral arrangements and spending time with his family. He was dead within a month.
Kagin said he realizes many people find their final exit to be comfortless without an eternal perspective. He grudgingly admitted to disconcerting rumors about Ray’s demise. “I heard from people close to him that he had converted before he died. There were religious overtones at the funeral,” Kagin said.
Nonetheless, Kagin remains unconvinced. “I grieved when (Ray) died,” he said. “I still miss him, and I wish he weren’t dead — but that’s just the reality. You’re alive for a while, and then you’re dead. You don’t get one without the other.
“I feel a good deal of sympathy for those who believe (in eternal life),” he said. “They’re simply wasting the irreplaceable piece of time they have … The belief in (heaven) can permit us to accept war and the death of our loved ones with a more casual, blasé attitude than if we saw this life as something precious.”
According to pollsters, atheism remains unpopular in America, although it is on a steady upward clip: About 15 percent of the population identifies as atheist, according to recent studies, up from 8 percent in the early 1990s.
For every Doug and Mary Burnett with unshakeable faith, there are plenty of others with ambivalence about whether their beliefs might be airy nothings.
Rabbi David Ariel-Joseph, leader of The Temple Jewish congregation in Louisville, has a strong conviction about the existence of God. He sees a spark of the Divine inside each person, and he pointed out that the Jewish funeral service affirms “the soul returns to God.” Yet he hesitated to assume a dogmatic tone about eternity: “I have no proof (of an afterlife),” he admitted. “It’s not a certainty; it’s not a science.
“Most of the time, I believe that the soul doesn’t die when we die,” he said. “(But) I’m not sure I know or that anyone knows (for certain) … and I’m not rushing to find the answer.” He acknowledged widely divergent beliefs in the Jewish tradition, from faith in heaven and hell to a simple conviction that a person lives on in memory.
In light of that ambiguity, the rabbi directs much of his focus toward achieving shalom, or peace and wholeness, in his earthly life. He takes comfort in a story about Rabbi Eliezer, a Jewish teacher of the 2nd century A.D. Eliezer told his students to prepare for their demise by “repenting the day before you die.” The pupils naturally inquired as to how they would know the appropriate moment. Their teacher replied, “You don’t. So you have to live every day like it’s the last.”
When the end comes, Ariel-Joseph hopes his own passing will be like that of his favorite rabbinic teacher in Jerusalem. The man lived and educated students until he was 89 years old. On his last evening of life, “he had dinner with his wife like he did every night. Then he taught his class and went to bed.” His wife awoke the next morning to discover that her husband had peacefully died in his sleep.
Nonetheless, “the whole idea of death is something that’s very hard to feel at peace with,” Ariel-Joseph admitted. “Being fully ‘there’ mentally and physically, being able to contribute to your students, and not losing for one minute your dignity as a human being — that’s the ideal.” But he realizes such things are beyond our control: Most of us will not experience a painless exit in the midst of dreams.
Mary Burnett certainly didn’t. After six years of suffering, she spent her final months in constant pain. She was an inspiration to everyone who knew her, but her dying was torturous.
For some, watching this kind of courage leads them to embrace God. Doug Burnett told of a family friend who converted to Christianity at Mary’s funeral.
For others, the reality of unmitigated pain discourages faith. Watching those we love suffer may be one of the strongest arguments against the existence of a ruling spiritual being.
Christianity grounds its claims to eternity in a historical event: Jesus returning from the grave. Father Martin Linebach, a priest at the Cathedral of the Assumption, explained: “We profess every Sunday that we believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting … basing our belief on what happened to Christ.”
But not everyone accepts the Christian version of history. Edwin Kagin dismissed it: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” he said. “If someone says a dead body has gotten out of the grave and is walking around, that might require a little verification.” Kagin suggested that it’s equally rational to believe in the “Immortal Flying Spaghetti Monster,” whose goods most have yet to sample.
Nonetheless, Christians have always clung stubbornly to claims of an empty tomb. The Apostle Paul famously wrote, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” And from its recounting of a historical resurrection, Christianity has developed a robust theology of suffering.
“Suffering doesn’t have to be an end in itself,” Linebach said. “It can be redemptive … The tremendous suffering of Christ redeemed the world. If my suffering brings me closer to him, it can’t be anything but good and beautiful — even though it was through the cross that I got there.”
This theology, Linebach said, is borne out by his years of priestly experience.
“Suffering takes people to a different level of life,” he said. “People who have been in critical situations and have gotten better will almost always say to you, ‘Boy, do I look at life differently now.’” He counsels those who are facing the end of life to view suffering as a beautiful imitation of Jesus.
Nonetheless, Linebach freely admitted this approach is “easier said than done” — and completely dependent upon the historicity of Christian teachings: Without belief that Jesus’s suffering ended in a resurrection, there’s little hope for our suffering to become redemptive, either.
The unfortunate reality is that the entire process of coping with death — from finding purpose in suffering to hoping for eternity when it ends — fundamentally relies upon beliefs. As we all know, faith is unscientific, untestable and only debatably historical. No one can determine with certainty from this side of the grave what’s right or wrong. For an experience as universal as death, humans have developed a remarkable spectrum of narratives about what happens next.
After our final exit, logic dictates that one of two realities must await us: something or nothing. If Edwin Kagin is to be believed, humanity’s contradictory beliefs about heaven are proof that none of them are right. Life is all we get.
Or perhaps the many explanations of the afterlife illustrate that there is, indeed, something beyond — but inadequate human language or imagination cannot contain its wonder in a single narrative.
All three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — teach that life continues after death. Mahti Muhammad, imam at the West Louisville Islamic Center, explained the teachings of the Quran: “We believe in the Day of Resurrection,” he said, “when you will be judged for the deeds you have done.”
The imam personally experienced the hope his beliefs bring when, in the span of two months, he lost both his wife and mother. He said his faith helped tremendously: “If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know what I would have done.”
People like Mahti Muhammad and Doug Burnett would have us believe that life is less than a word on the page of eternity. This life is, in a sense, nothing but preparation for the one to come. Father Martin Linebach would have us embrace suffering as an imitation of Jesus, encountering the cross in hope of the resurrection.
But such leaps of faith do not come easily to everyone. Rabbi David Ariel-Joseph admits that some days, he simply doesn’t know what to think. “We (Americans) tend to believe we can fix every situation. But death is something that on the surface, we can’t fix. So maybe we need to believe there’s an afterlife, that (our loved ones are) not really gone and that’s it. Maybe it’s part of fixing our own phobias. That’s what I feel on the days that I am less optimistic.”
Linebach confessed doubts of his own. “I do (wonder about eternity),” he said. “But then I come to my spiritual senses. I have experienced people being able to overcome incredible obstacles and hardships and heartaches. I cannot give credence to anything other than faith in the presence of God.”
“I guess it comes down to this,” said Doug Burnett, in his typical direct fashion. “If I’m wrong and I’ve put my trust in (Christianity), I can be called a fool. If I’m right, then I’ve got eternal life … I feel sorry for the people who don’t know Christ. I do believe that the only way to the Father is through the Son.”
Kagin has a far different perspective.
“Let’s say there is a God, but he will condemn you to eternal damnation if you believe in him based on insufficient evidence,” he said. “Or why don’t you believe in (ancient Egyptian deities) Osiris or Aman-Rah? You see the problem there? Why don’t you bet your soul on the Immortal Flying Spaghetti Monster? If he’s there, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
He doesn’t buy Burnett’s argument for a minute.
“It’s just not rational, is it?”
Meanwhile, Doug Burnett continues to live with the daily reality that his high school sweetheart is dead, and his daughters are without a mother. During the month of May, he endured prom night, graduation and Mother’s Day in quick succession. “I just try to get through the milestones,” he said.
He recalled some of his final conversations with Mary: “We talked a lot about the girls — what was going to happen to them when she was gone,” Burnett said. “And there was sadness — we talked about how we’d miss each other.”
But his face brightened as he returned to the theme of heaven, looking forward to the hope that Mary is not gone forever. “Mary always had an eternal perspective,” he said. “I keep looking forward to being with her again one day.
“People may look at [our family] like we’re crazy,” he acknowledged. “But if you believe what we believe with all our hearts and know the final prize, it’s not so hard.”
Doug Burnett and Edwin Kagin are not likely to convert on the basis of each other’s beliefs. Burnett has taken a leap of faith and found his existence to be richer for it. Kagin has leaped in the opposite direction and believes he is seeing life clearer.
In the end, each of us must make a wager of our own. No one can know with certainty whether faith, atheism or something in between is closest to the truth. If the only sure things in life are death and taxes, then April 15 is coming.