Death & dying

Might Doris Day's Christian Science background explain her desire for no funeral or grave marker?

Might Doris Day's Christian Science background explain her desire for no funeral or grave marker?

Many news articles on the recent death of actress Doris Day at age 97 mentioned her desire that no memorial service be held or grave marker erected.

Fewer cited her background in Christian Science.

In that lack of mention, the Rev. Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina alerted GetReligion to a potential holy ghost.

A bit more on that in a moment. First, some relevant background from People, which quotes manager and close friend Bob Bashara:

In addition to saying Day didn’t “like to talk about” a prospective funeral or memorial, Bashara explains, “She didn’t like death, and she couldn’t be with her animals if they had to be put down. She had difficulty accepting death.”

“I’d say we need to provide for her dogs [after she died], and she’d say, ‘I don’t want to think about it’ and she said, ‘Well, you just take care of them,'” recalls Bashara. “She had several when her will was written, and she wanted to be sure they were taken care of. She didn’t like to talk about the dogs dying.”

An avid animal lover and animal welfare advocate, Day was brought up Catholic and was a practicing Christian Scientist after marrying producer Martin Melcher.

Day “drifted away” from organized religion after Melcher died in 1968, Bashara says, but remained “a spiritual person.”

“She believed in God, and she thought her voice was God-given,” he says. “She would say, ‘God gave me a voice, and I just used it.'”

Bashara says he remains unsure as to why Day was reticent about having a funeral, but explains, “I think it was because she was a very shy person.”

Was it because she was shy? Or did her Christian Science experience perhaps play into her view of death?

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SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

To cut to the chase: I have just returned from a long eye exam (things are OK) and focusing on a computer screen is not going to be easy for several hours.

So let’s make this a quick post. OK?

What we have here is your basic Washington Post law-and-politics story, one running under the headline: “Last-minute execution decisions expose wide and bitter rift at Supreme Court.”

The death penalty is, of course, a hot-button issue linked to debates involving religion and morality, as well as political and legal realities. Here is the opening of this report:

The Supreme Court meets in private to decide last-minute pleas from death-row inmates to stop their executions, and what happens behind the maroon velvet curtains often stays behind the maroon velvet curtains.

But that changed Monday, with justices issuing a flurry of explanations and recriminations on cases decided weeks ago. The writings named names and exposed a bitter rift among members of the court on one of the most emotional and irreversible decisions they make.

Decisions on last-minute stays usually come with only a minimum of reasoning. But three justices issued a set-the-record-straight opinion that took aim at one of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissents from a month ago. Breyer had said that the court’s conservatives deviated from “basic principles of fairness” in refusing to take more time to consider the plea of an Alabama murderer, Christopher Lee Price, who had asked to be executed by inhaling nitrogen gas rather than risk a “botched” lethal injection.

“There is nothing of substance to these assertions,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch. They said that Breyer’s reasoning, which was joined by the court’s three other liberals, “does not withstand even minimal legal scrutiny.”

Now, since my eyes are under the weather, let’s let GetReligion readers look through this story through a media-criticism lens.

This story contains a lot of religion, since the court cases here involve Buddhist and Muslim prisoners and their First Amendment rights. Think religious liberty issues, without the “scare quotes.”

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Life is unfair, and then you die, and then your survivors throw one hell of a party

Life is unfair, and then you die, and then your survivors throw one hell of a party

Karen Heller’s “The funeral as we know it is becoming a relic — just in time for a death boom” for The Washington Post is a nearly pitch-perfect roundup of how egocentric choices seem to diminish every cultural and religious custom they touch. 

For all the language about not denying death and “hollow platitudes that barely relate to the deceased,” the “celebration of life”  movement is just as death-haunted as some funeral traditions in the cultural past — and, as shown in Heller’s report, silent on larger questions about an afterlife.

After leading with a solid illustration from a “Memorialpalooza” for entertainment agent Howard West, Heller turns to the factors (hello Baby Boomers) driving the trend of funerals as parties. This passage is long, but essential reading:

Death is a given, but not the time-honored rituals. An increasingly secular, nomadic and casual America is shredding the rules about how to commemorate death, and it’s not just among the wealthy and famous. Somber, embalmed-body funerals, with their $9,000 industry average price tag, are, for many families, a relic. Instead, end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized: golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less “Ave Maria,” more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the “fun” in funerals.

The movement will only accelerate as the nation approaches a historic spike in deaths. Baby boomers, despite strenuous efforts to stall the aging process, are not getting any younger. In 2030, people over 65 will outnumber children, and by 2037, 3.6 million people are projected to die in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, 1 million more than in 2015, which is projected to outpace the growth of the overall population. …

Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). Religious burial requirements are less a consideration in a country where only 36 percent of Americans say they regularly attend religious services, nearly a third never or rarely attend, and almost a quarter identify as agnostic or atheist, according to the Pew Research Center.

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The tragic, early death of Rachel Held Evans gives us a rare look at journalistic grief

The tragic, early death of Rachel Held Evans gives us a rare look at journalistic grief

Death at the age of 37 is horribly short for this day and age, especially if one is a major voice for the disenchanted evangelical left.

That plus leaving behind two very young children –- the nightmare of any mother -– created an unprecedented outpouring of Twitter mourning for the simple blogger and author of religious-themed books who died on Saturday. She was Rachel Held Evans, whose family turned off her life support system after two weeks of being in a medically induced coma because of brain seizures.

When her death was imminent, some friends flew to Nashville to say goodbye. Among them was Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and the queen of liberal Christians who tweeted that she was among those friends at Evans’ bedside and that she anointed the dying woman.

What I didn’t realize about Evans is how much she connected with reporters –- especially some with degrees from Wheaton and evangelical backgrounds -– who began pouring out tributes by mid-day Saturday. This was the darkest of days on the evangelical left, which is a rising force in evangelical life — in part because of its media clout.

One of the first up was Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate:

Rachel Held Evans, an influential progressive Christian writer and speaker who cheerfully challenged American evangelical culture, died on Saturday at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Evans, 37, entered the hospital in mid-April with the flu, and then had a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics, as she wrote on Twitter several weeks ago. According to her husband, Dan Evans, she then developed sustained seizures. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma, but some seizures returned when her medical team attempted to wean her from the medications that were maintaining her coma. Her condition worsened on Thursday morning, and her medical team discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died early on Saturday morning.

Judging from the speed at which the story was posted, I’m guessing the writer knew that Evans wasn’t going to recover and had an obit ready to go (which is common practice with beat reporters).

Many other stories and commentaries quickly sprang up, including from Religion News Service, the Washington Post , in NPR, the New York Times and more. This was a wave of journalistic grief.

So, who was this woman and why did so many reporters, all of whom appeared to be friends with her, weep after her death?

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While other media observe Columbine's 20th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times goes for the God angle

While other media observe Columbine's 20th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times goes for the God angle

Over the weekend, there were some haunting stories about the 20th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School just outside of Denver. I remember our newsroom in Washington, D.C. scrambling to put together a story from more than 1,200 miles away.

Fortunately, we had a staff writer, Valerie Richardson, who lived not far away from the school and rushed over there as fast as she could as she knew this was historic and there’d never been such a mass shooting at a school before.

Sadly, much has changed since then and school shootings have become part of the American landscape. I wish to spotlight two stories; one of which gives a well-deserved place to religious faith and the other that ignored it.

The first story, from the Los Angeles Times, was about the pastors who were tasked with having to comfort the afflicted families and deliver sermons at the funerals of their children.

They were the men of faith faced with a seemingly impossible task — providing comfort, hope, maybe understanding — after 12 students and a teacher were shot to death at Columbine High School.

Bill Oudemolen presided over the funeral for 16-year-old John Tomlin days after the mass shooting. The pastor told the large crowd at Foothills Bible Church that he just didn’t want to accept what had happened.

“He was killed simply because he went to school Tuesday morning,” Oudemolen told the crowd in Littleton, Colo. “Schools are supposed to be safe zones, not killing fields.” …

These men had the impossible tax of explaining how God could let this happen.

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A string of teen suicides in Utah — might town's Mormon influence offer relevant context?

A string of teen suicides in Utah — might town's Mormon influence offer relevant context?

Certainly, not every national story out of Utah has to include mention of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But given the LDS church’s strong influence in the Beehive State, that faith connection is highly relevant in many cases.

Take the Wall Street Journal’s recent front-page on a string of teen suicides in Herriman, Utah.

Based on the Journal’s powerful lede, it’s not immediately clear whether religion is a crucial factor — or a factor at all:

HERRIMAN, Utah — Eight months to the day after his only son, Chandler, killed himself, Kurt Voutaz was in his kitchen eating lunch.

He and his wife, Catherine, had long since ripped the blood-soaked carpet out of Chandler's bedroom and cleaned the walls and ceiling. It was warm for February, and they had taken the snow tires off the car. They were hoping winter was over.

Suddenly, a police car sped across a footpath in the park behind their house. A couple of teenagers were standing nearby, shouting.

Mr. Voutaz stepped outside to see what was going on. He quickly wished he hadn't. Just a few yards from his house, a body was lying on the ground. It was Chandler's friend, Cooper Nagy. Like Chandler, he had shot himself.

Cooper was the fourth high-school student from Herriman to die by suicide since Chandler's death in June of 2017. Two more would kill themselves by May of 2018, bringing the total to six in less than a year, plus at least one recent graduate.

Keep reading, and the story provides the nut graf — noting that the nation’s suicide rate is rising and that “suicide clusters” involving multiple deaths and almost always adolescents hit roughly five U.S. communities per year.

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Doug Bock Clark writes beautifully on a sorrowful topic in North Korean life

Doug Bock Clark writes beautifully on a sorrowful topic in North Korean life

Doug Bock Clark has written an amazing report for GQ that is essential reading for those who care about North Korea refugees and how Christianity has driven one man to help them.

Clark reports on the Underground Railroad that helps people escape from North Korea to China and from there to multiple Southeast Asian countries.

Clark has published two previous longform reports with GQ: an account of Kim Jong-nam’s being murdered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and a detail-rich record of how Otto Warmbier so easily slipped from student visitor to a dead victim of North Korean brutality.

Now he begins with the story of a young mother named Faith who makes a slow and costly journey from Pyongyang to Phnom Penh.

The following passage is long, but essential, if GetReligion readers want to understand why this is a must-read feature.

Much of Faith’s journey is arranged by Stephen Kim, the believer at the heart of this amazing story:

For safety, Kim doesn’t want too much known about his past, but there are two facts that he feels are important in order to understand him. First, his father grew up in what became North Korea before he moved to modern-day South Korea to run a wholesale vegetable business. Sometime after that, the Korean Peninsula was split into two nations and the Korean War broke out. Thus, while Kim grew up in the South, he thought of North Koreans as long-lost family. Second, Kim’s father was Christian, and though he and his family eventually stopped attending church, Kim never forgot Jesus.

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Religious freedom case involving Buddhist death row inmate in Texas just got more intriguing

Religious freedom case involving Buddhist death row inmate in Texas just got more intriguing

At first glance, it might seem like a simple solution.

The state of Texas had a quick response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a Buddhist death row inmate who asked for his spiritual adviser to be in the execution room with him.

In case you missed it earlier, the high court granted a rare stay of execution to Patrick Murphy last week. This came, as we noted, after a different high court ruling in an Arkansas case concerning Muslim inmate Domineque Ray.

The Lone Star fix? Ban all religious chaplains from the death chamber.

OK, problem solved. Or not.

The better news reports I’m seeing — both in Texas papers and the national press — reflect the crucial legal arguments in Patrick Murphy’s case and not just the simplified sound bites.

Among the incomplete coverage, CNN reports the Texas change as if it’s the end of the discussion:

(CNN) The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will bar chaplains, ministers and spiritual advisers from execution chambers in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last week that halted the execution of an inmate who sought to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser in the death chamber.

The move is the latest step in a controversy that pit the religious liberty concerns of death row inmates against security concerns of prisons.

The justices agreed to stay Patrick Henry Murphy's execution, but weeks earlier, had denied a similar request from an inmate in Alabama.

Murphy's initial request had been denied by Texas because officials said for security reasons only prison employees were allowed into the chamber, and the prison only employed Christian and Muslim advisers.

Lawyers for Murphy challenged the policy arguing that it violated Murphy's religious liberty rights. The Supreme Court stepped in and put the execution on hold.

In a statement released Wednesday, the state now says that, "effective Immediately," the protocol now only allows security personnel in the execution chamber.

To its credit, CNN notes:

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Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

“Journalists really need to follow up on this crucial religious-liberty case,” our own tmatt wrote in February after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the execution of a Muslim inmate. The big issue in that case was Alabama inmate Domineque Ray’s execution without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side.

But last week, the high court granted a rare stay of execution for a Texas inmate as he was waiting in the death chamber. Justices ruled that the refusal of Texas to allow a Buddhist spiritual adviser to be present violated Patrick Murphy’s freedom of religion.

Wait, what gives?

Why let one inmate die and another live in such similar cases?

Such questions sound like perfect pegs for inquisitive journalists.

Speaking of which …

Robert Barnes, the Washington Post’s veteran Supreme Court reporter, points to the court’s newest justice:

It’s difficult to say with certainty why the Supreme Court on Thursday night stopped the execution of a Buddhist inmate in Texas because he was not allowed a spiritual adviser by his side, when last month it approved the execution of a Muslim inmate in Alabama under almost the exact circumstances.

But the obvious place to start is new Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who seemed to have a change of heart.

Kavanaugh on Thursday was the only justice to spell out his reasoning: Texas could not execute Patrick Murphy without his Buddhist adviser in the room because it allows Christian and Muslim inmates to have religious leaders by their sides.

“In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination,” Kavanaugh wrote.

But Kavanaugh was on the other side last month when Justice Elena Kagan and three other justices declared “profoundly wrong” Alabama’s decision to turn down Muslim Domineque Ray’s request for an imam to be at his execution, making available only a Christian chaplain.

“That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” Kagan wrote then.

Keep reading, and the Post notes differences in how the inmates’ attorneys made their arguments:

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