Death is a common theme during Lent. The season opens with Ash Wednesday’s reminder that we are mortal and closes with the death of Christ himself on Good Friday. But conversations about death tend to focus on what happens to us after we die. Other times, we think about death in abstract terms, a matter-of-factness that is certain but far off. We’ve marginalized and seldom talk about the actual process of dying, the only aspect of death we can see with our own eyes.

In Everyday Armageddons: Stories and Reflections on Death, Dying, God, and Waste (Cascade Books, 2023), authors Matthew Holmes and Thomas R. Gaulke pushes us into that liminal space from our vibrant existence to the margins of the unforgotten or ignored, the place where we could very well end up without realizing it’s happening. As pastors, neither are strangers to death, though Holmes has more intimate professional experience, having spent the past 20 years as a nurse’s aid, a chaplain at both hospitals and hospices, and a bereavement coordinator.

“All of my positions have been in but not of the world,” said Holmes. “A chaplain is not really a medical person, but they are in the medical world, so it brings an interesting perspective. I wanted to write stories that pointed out the kind of realities of [death] that people shy away from.” Holmes calls our modern treatment of death “absurd,” a description backed up by the book’s stories.

Each chapter offers a different perspective on how we might die: in a nursing home, with private, round-the-clock care; in hospice, quickly and without fanfare; at home, with loved ones caring for us, to name a few. The stories are filled with different characters and outlooks on the experience, and each chapter informs the next on the realities of what the dying endure and how any one option is not necessarily the better choice.

Take Pete and Liz. Pete starts as a rebel, his freewheeling lifestyle alienating Liz’s family and eventually forcing Liz to leave him. Her reconciliation with Pete is decades in the making and ends with Pete’s passing. But the way he dies, with from an impaction that could’ve been prevented during the short visit in the nursing home while Liz travels for a family event, harks back to the beginning of the book, which portrays another character’s experience in the nursing home. At this facility, undertrained and underpaid staff care for too many people, all at a stage of life where families can no longer (or don’t want to) care for them.

In between the chapters are interludes that explores the spiritual aspects of dying. Gaulke writes with a poetic beat even when the text is written as prose, his rhythm audible in the familiar cadence of a pastor contemplating as they preach, joining on the spiritual journey with their parishioners, not entirely sure where everyone will end up. Through these “theopoetic” interludes, Gaulke forces us to meditate on what we have just experienced, not necessarily answering any questions or leaving us with any type resolution.

“What does it mean to belong to a tradition, what does it mean to look for the spiritual?” Gaulke asked. Gaulke cited Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves, highlighting a passage in which Alves spoke about the many ways God dwells in our hearts. Alves was asked once if he believed in God, to which he replied, “Which God?” The God of Saint Francis, Alves pointed out, is different from the God of Torquemada. Eventually Alves confessed that he wasn’t sure but said, “I know I’m a builder of altars. I build my altars with poetry and music. The altars must be beautiful.”

In Everyday Armageddons, Gaulke added, each interlude builds an altar for the person to whom Holmes builds a monument. “Or maybe building the altar before the monument,” he said. “In a sense each one is a prayer for the person [in the chapter]. It’s hard because not everyone wants to think poetically or admit that they think poetically, but questions about meaning and spirituality, not just in the questions of loss of people but of God or of certainty. They’re postmodern questions, but I would argue that a lot of people feel it. I would hope that this book, like a lot of really good music, is able to bring spirituality and religious language and use it in a kind of way that speaks new meaning into it.”

Holmes agreed, adding that the interludes were more of a palate cleanser, a change of pace and scenery between each chapter. If anything, the interludes reveal how God can still be present in the struggle of the dying, not necessarily providing comfort but watching the process play out and crying over their pain and isolation. Rather than provide a sense of closure, each interlude serves as a pause between stories, a chance to breathe before the next trauma. To read Everyday Armageddons is to grasp the reality that dying alone, ignored and pushed aside, isn’t just something that happens to others but something that can happen to ourselves in the next 10 or 20 years, or longer if we’re lucky.

This struggle against death is not common throughout human history, though. As Holmes and Gaulke both noted, death did not look like this in the 19th century. A hundred years ago we lacked many of our modern tools for prolonging life. When someone approached death, their family and community embraced the reality before them instead of hiding the sick in prisons masquerading as care facilities or with actions that overpromised and underdelivered.

This idea of death, ancient as it is, can be seen in the images that precede each chapter with the images selected, creating a journey from death as a part of life, the story of death pushed to the margins and concluding with a postmodern rumination. Reading the book, we are left determined that there has to be a better way to die.

The book ends from the perspective of someone recently deceased who watches a nursing home staffer struggle to close their file. The deceased person’s only living relative hasn’t spoken to them in years and is waffling to pay for cremation. This closing chapter purposely leaves the process unfinished and asks us to consider how we want to die, something both Holmes and Gaulke said they had contemplated themselves. Both recognized they want to be with family, that those watching a loved one die need care too, and that the process must be more manageable and less marginalizing for everyone involved.

“I want to live as much as I can to the end,” said Holmes. “I want to be as awake as I can be. On some level, I want to experience as much of life as I can. I may change my mind in the moment, but I want to be with the people around me and feel what it is to feel in that moment.”

JN Shimko
JN Shimko is the ELCA director of content strategy.

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