The Last Passage: Recovering a Death of Our Own

The Last Passage: Recovering a Death of Our Own

The Last Passage: Recovering a Death of Our Own

The Last Passage: Recovering a Death of Our Own


Is death merely the cessation of life? Are our final years simply a wearing out of the body? Are hospitals and funeral homes--the bureaucratic machinery of death--capable of handling the profound spiritual dimension of dying? In The Last Passage, Donald Heinz offers wise answers to these questions in a book that urges us to "recover a death of our own" and to view our final years as a fulfillment, a "last career." Despite the recent spate of books on death and dying, death remains a fact our culture tries desperately to ignore. In other times and in other cultures, preparing for death was seen as an important spiritual task--perhaps the most important task of our lives. Heinz argues that we can reconceive of death, reinvest it with meaning, and save it from becoming a meaningless biological event. Seeking appropriate models for such a reconstruction, Heinz offers a fascinating overview of the many ways death has been envisioned and ritualized throughout human history, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to 15th century Christian ars moriendi--manuals on the art of dying--and from Jean Paul Sartre to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. He also surveys the more recent contributions of psychologists, anthropologists, cultural critics, and death awareness advocates, whose efforts have largely failed to integrate death into a larger human story and the larger human community. Finally, Heinz shows us how we might create rituals through the use of music, visual arts, dance, drama, and language that would enable us to approach death with reverence, as the spiritual consummation of our lives.


Mastering my mother's tapes, hurrying in my fathers steps.

I remember my parents coming to visit me in California one spring. My mother brought from Dubuque precious family tapes she wanted me to turn into cassettes she could play on the small machine I had given her the Christmas before. These were the family stories, reel-to-reel, she had packed in her suitcase. Mostly they were rites of passage: a memorial service for my brother who had died in Vietnam, family weddings, my brother's and my ordination services, a first sermon.

My parents had only three days to spend with me before taking the Greyhound on to see my sister in Texas. There was much to talk about, especially the coming celebration of their fiftieth wedding anniversary. But it was the tapes that preoccupied my mother. When the transcribing was over, she rested like God on the seventh day. Creation was done, and the words that called us all to life could be listened to over and over again.

I supposed the tapes would be my mother's companions while she sewed quilts and baby clothes for Lutheran World Relief Even my father might stay awake one evening, listening to the tapes after a long day at the store, grieving again his elder boy's death, celebrating his daughter's wedding, nodding through initiation sermons.

I look back on how I struggled, grudgingly, with aging tape machines and obsolete hookups, how the taping project seemed such an insignificant task. But my mother was insistent in her special way. She was the guardian of family memories, she kept our stories dose to her heart. I remember the time when I sat, as a little boy, watching her crying as she threw away old treasures after spring cleaning the attic. This was now her autumn, and she was storing up our futures. It was no accident that I, the surviving son, was asked to preside over this handing down from tape to tape. In India, the sacred texts were written on palm leaf sheets tied together with a string. Dharma, the moral order of the universe, is as fragile and vulnerable to disintegration as these texts on palm leaves. Every generation must copy them anew if dharma is to . . .

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