Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Mummified Granny and the Denial of Death

The front page of this morning's Cincinnati Enquirer carried the headline, "Woman sat dead at home 2½ years: Family kept TV on for mummified grandma." Enquirer reporter Christy Arnold wrote:
Johannas Pope didn't want to be buried, believing that she would come back to life.

Pope died at her home here at age 61 on Aug. 29, 2003. A towel had been placed around her neck to keep her cool on that 87-degree summer day. She wore a white gown while sitting in a chair in an upstairs room, in front of a television that played as family members went about their lives downstairs.

She remained there, according to her wishes, for almost 2 years.

"Don't show my body when I'm dead," Hamilton County's coroner, Dr. O'dell Owens, said Monday when explaining Pope's wishes. "Don't bury me. I'm coming back."
The story, in turns, made me guffaw and grimace in disbelief.

What was this woman's family thinking? It all seemed so bizarre.

Yet, as I thought about it, the deceased woman's insistence that she wasn't going to stay dead and her family's complicty with the fiction is probably just an extreme example of a way of thinking that's increasingly common today.

A quick perusal of the web shows that annually, Americans spend $18-billion on cosmetics and $40-billion on dieting, diet books, diet programs, and diet food. Something like 110,000 people have liposuction done each year, with the numbers of men undergoing these procedures doubling in a recent three-year period.

This isn't a jaw about vanity, though. Nor am I condemning those laudable souls who try to stay in shape after their shape has begun to round and slide earthward.

My concern, rather, is that we're a culture in the clutches of a mass denial of death and of aging.

It can make us look silly. The other day at the mall, I passed an elderly woman, probably on the far side of 80. That she was walking strong and tall under her own power was laudable. But that her hair was a shade of red not known in nature was laughable.

The process of aging and of death are unpleasant realities, of course. But no matter how many TV episodes our dead granny sets before, no matter how many shades of crimson may be applied to our hair, and even if we take on the bizarre visage of today's Joan Rivers, eyeballs stretched perilously close to the tops of our skulls, nothing can alter the facts that we age and we die.

The denial of death is really an expression of hopeless. When we deny death and aging, we become detached from reality for the sake of maintaining our grasp on a life that inevitably ends. Johannas Pope, like the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, thought that when she came back, all would be pretty much as it had been before. She would wake up to watch Bob Barker on The Price is Right. Or, maybe she thought that things would be as they were before, only better. No matter. Whenever any of us fall prey to the denial of death, we're living in a dream world.

This denial also expresses our desire to be in control. "The aging process is giving me gray hair," we say. "I'll show the aging process who's boss!" It's a good thing for people to try to remain as healthful as they can throughout their lives. But nothing we do can mask the simple fact that much of life and death are out of our control.

But all isn't hopeless. The God revealed to us through Jesus Christ promises new life to all who turn away from sin and receive the life that He gives. "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (Second Corinthians 5:17) We have the promise that if we entrust our lives to Christ, we will live with God forever.

The follower of Christ isn't called to a denial of death. Christians accept death as a reality of life on this earth. They try to face it as graciously and as courageously as one of our number, Pope John Paul II, so recently faced his death. He was as prayerful, productive, and faithful as he could be even as aging, disease, and death overtook him.

He was able to do that because of the hope of Christ. He put no stock in notions of coming to life again in this broken world or denying the reality of his mortality. He could die in peace knowing that He belonged to a Savior Who had gone through death and hell in order to bring all who follow Him into a better and eternal country.

A big part of faith is trusting God in the silence, ambiguity, and uncertainty of this life. Members of the church I serve as pastor and I are beginning a study of the New Testament book of Acts tonight. In preparation for it, I've been re-reading William Willimon's wonderful commentary on Acts. This morning, I've been reading about how the first two things the disciples did after the resurrected Jesus told them to be His witnesses in the world was wait and pray. They realized that the task was too big for them to handle on their own, so they waited for the Holy Spirit to power them, just as Jesus had commanded them to do. Writes Willimon:
...they wait as those who are still dependent upon the Father's faithfulness, those who have no control over the timetable of a beneficent God who graciously allows enough time to accomplish the work begun in Jesus.
Until the risen and ascended Jesus returns to the world, aging and dying will be part of life here. We needn't deny it. We can, as several of the characters in C.S. Lewis' Narnian novels say, "take the adventure" that God puts before us in the certain hope that while we can do nothing to usher ourselves into eternity, the Savior Jesus to Whom we surrender can...and will.


P_J said...


Great reflections and good reminders for us all. I've been dealing with a lot of death lately (four in the last 2 weeks). While it's draining in one way, it's so good to be able to offer hope in Christ to the grieving.

I've linked to this at Conblogeration. I hope that more people will read it.

"Farther up and farther in!"

Mark Daniels said...

Several times in my former parish, there would be a spate of deaths like that. It was draining, as you say. But I felt similarly privileged to share the Gospel at a time when people were most ready to hear it and soak up its power!

In the meantime, take care of yourself.

Blessings in Christ,

nazsmith said...

Aging vs death:
These are two different things. Aging as we know it isn't inevitable. One can deny science and technology, but it doesn't need faith to exist.
Death, on the other hand, is inevitable as nothing lasts forever. This family was not concerned with aging and this story does not resonate about America's attempts to slow the effects of aging. The story does reflect on some Americans' so-called beliefs. I see a serious dissonance in what people say they believe and what they actually believe. Somehow religious Americans say they have faith, but when someone states they've spoken with God, they think they're crazy. With all of the stories told to children and adults in church, it's a wonder why so few actually believe that they can have conversations with snakes, eat magical fruit, or rise from the dead. Maybe Americans should just admit they do not literally believe in their religious stories and discover that God exists beyond any book.

Mark Daniels said...

Aging is the process of dying. So, I fail to see how they can be differentiated.

There was no indication in the Enquirer article that Pope claimed to have had a revelation from God, per se.

Of course, as Christians we believe that God reveals Himself to individuals. But those individuals also must be willing to measure what they sense God is telling them against the "canon" of Scripture and in the faith community. Unlike Islam or Mormonism, which base their belief systems on what individual men claimed God revealed to them alone, Christianity is a communal faith. To prevent irresponsibility, we believe that we must be willing to have our "words" measured against God's Word as mediated to many people over time and as interpreted by a faith community inspired by God's Spirit.

Thanks for your comments and for dropping by the blog!