Have you ever noticed that priests and other members of the clergy traditionally wear black clothing? In the old days, it was actually quite common to see a priest walking around town wearing a long black robe called a cassock. Today, cassocks are usually reserved for non-Eucharistic liturgical settings. But every once in a while, you might see a cleric wearing a cassock. Today you are much more likely to see a priest wear black shirts, blouses, slacks, or skirts. But the origin of these garments is the black cassock. So why is a cassock, and its descendent of modern clergy attire, usually black? The answer might sound a little morbid and uncomfortable. The reason we wear black is because it reminds us of our mortality. The black cassock is representative of our death shroud. We wear a white surplice or alb over our black cassock or clerical clothing because that garment represents our baptismal gown. With our baptismal gown worn over our death shroud, we show that eternal life conquers physical death. But the unescapable fact remains: each of us will one day die.
Do you ever spend time thinking about death? I certainly do. As much as I’d like to avoid death, I know that someday I will no longer be here. When I ponder death, I think of the people left behind. Will I be missed? Will anyone notice? Will anyone care? And what about my loved ones who will die before me? How will I manage my grief and sorrow? Will I be able to carry on? Will I feel completely lost and devastated? When they are gone, in what ways will my life be different? These are very normal (and important!) questions. And as morbid as it may sound, it is important for us to know that death will come at some point. One day we will die and one day our loved ones will die. Some of them will die before us and some will die after us. But realistically speaking, 100 years from now, no one who is reading this will be alive.
Easter is indeed a time to focus on eternal life conquering physical death. Easter vestments and flowers are white as a reminder of our eternal life. So you might be asking, “Father Tim, why are you writing about death during this season of life?” And that’s a great question to ask! The reason is simply that sadly, we’ve had a number of parishioners pass away recently. When those around us die, our thoughts naturally meander toward pondering death. When I was a hospital chaplain, there was one week when I sat and had conversations with three different men who were exactly my age. By Friday of that week, all three of them were dead. While logically I knew that hospitals only see people who are suffering with illnesses, and the population of hospitalized people does not represent the wider population, the emotional side of my being saw my own mortality looking me right in the eye. Somewhere, something inside of me seemed to say, “Everyone I know who is my age is dying!” I know I am in good health, but when we’re surrounded by death and dying, it is very common to think of the end of life.
While it is not healthy to obsess about death, it is perfectly healthy to think about death from time to time. Why do we die? What’s on the other side? Will I see my beloved family members and even my pets when I get to heaven? Those are some of the existential questions we might ask. But did you know it’s important to ask the practical questions, too? What do I want done with my body after I die? Do I want to be buried? Do I want to be cremated? If I’m cremated, do I want my ashes scattered somewhere? And what about my personal effects? Who do I want to have my jewelry? Who is going to get my car? Who is going to get my extensive collection of aloha shirts? Maybe more importantly, how do I help my loved ones so they don’t have to wade through all my junk and decide what needs to be kept and what needs to be thrown away? Have you ever gone through a deceased family member’s belongings, only to realize much of what they had looked like junk that needed to be disposed of? I have. It isn’t fun. It’s emotionally draining. And it can even bring about feelings of guilt. “I mean, I don’t really want a broken Garfield alarm clock, but Grandma loved it so much! Should I really throw it out?”
When we avoid the morbid side of death, and we acknowledge that it is simply part of life, then we can have healthy conversations about it with our friends and family. If I tell Grandma I do not want her Garfield alarm clock, then she can make other plans for it. Maybe she can sort through some of her stuff on her own and get rid of things she no longer uses. When we have healthy conversations about death and dying, then we can be intentional about our wishes. And we can entrust people to act as our agents to assure our wishes are honored. Did you know that if you wish to have a Do Not Resuscitate order, it can be overruled by your agent if you are unable to speak for yourself? It is important to appoint an agent who will not override your requests, even if it is difficult to do. I have seen countless examples of people who have been resuscitated against their own wishes only to live for another two weeks or so in immense pain and agony, all because their agents did not know their wishes and couldn’t bear to call off CPR efforts. Essentially what I’m advising is to pick an agent to speak on your behalf, make sure that person knows your wishes, and make sure that person agrees to honor your wishes. By state law, that person is your next of kin unless you choose someone different. If you choose someone different, make sure your advance directive is filled out, signed, and kept in an easy-to-find location. It shouldn’t be in a safety deposit box because no one will look there. Before Brandy and I got married, I kept mine on the refrigerator. Believe it or not, that’s the first place the paramedics will look.
And while your Garfield alarm clock might be sentimentally valuable to you, what do you plan to do with your liquid assets and real estate? That is a very important question. While it may indeed be important to leave an offering to the Rockne Athletics Fund to support University of Notre Dame athletics, it is actually much more important to leave a legacy gift to your parish. In fact, on page 445, the Book of Common Prayer recommends this. And it requires that I “instruct the people, from time to time” about doing so. Hence, I’m writing this message.
Some of the most helpful gifts parishes receive are legacy gifts. Has St. John’s been meaningful to you in your life? If so, then I’m hopeful you want to share that experience with people for generations to come. I certainly do! Leaving a legacy gift can help to ensure that St. John’s will remain financially secure. It is a kind, loving way to ensure your spiritual home will continue to thrive. While you likely will need to discuss the details with an expert financial advisor, attorney, or CPA, there is a possibility that your legacy gift will have tax benefits for your heirs as well.
We don’t live on this earth forever. That’s simply something we must face at some point or another. Indeed, we want to make the most of the time we do have here. And we want to make things as easy as possible for the people we inevitably will leave behind. Ensuring that we have assigned agents and our agents are aware of our wishes are both acts of remarkable kindness. There’s no guessing. If I know what you want done with your Garfield alarm clock, then I will take care of it and I never have to feel guilty about it or second guess myself. If your heirs know your wishes for your assets, then you can be assured they will be allocated appropriately. Please prayerfully prepare for the day when you will leave this earth. And when you leave, please remember to keep St. John’s in your will. Your spiritual community with be appreciative.