The deaths of our most famous people come as a surprise. At one moment they are well and being taken for granted and in the next minute there is a slide with their photo on it behind John Chancellor telling us that some name that had been part of our social landscape is gone. No advance warning is provided unless you count those awful death watches outside the hospital which spring up on the TV sets when the super-famous pass from among us.
Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) has chosen another way. He has left it be known that his doctors consider him mortally ill. Terminal is the adjective used. It's one of those shattering euphemisms that is so much more depressing than the Anglo-saxon saying, "The man is dying."
Some societies are insistent that the living be separated from the dead, and terminal with its original Latin meaning of boundary does that. Since it also has connotations of clinical asepsis, of stainless steel, of eyes over sugical masks looking through thick glass, terminal is more than final, more of the end than the end.
It is odd that this society, so many of whose members are praticing Christians, should favor words so bleak, so terminal. "In expectation of life everlasting" is how the prayer goes, but it public, at any rate, few show signs of believing it.
Sen. Humphrey has. He has given us a role model for dying. The Greeks and the Romans spoke of the good death; they believed that part of living was learning how to die. We, who are assiduous in providing role models for ourselves for any number of activities most of us are not likely to enage in, have no model for dying the death that assuredly we shall all do. In this the senator may be performing his most valuable service for us in a long career of doing much for which we ought to be grateful.
These past few months, people have increasingly referred to Humphrey as the "Happy Warrior," a sobriquet originally conferred on Al Smith by Franklin Roosevelt. Bowler Derby Al, who spent his last years acting like a sourpuss, didn't deserve it. Sen. Humphrey does.
Against the cancer terrors he has been a Happy Warrior. You can imagine how other ages thought about the plague, or small pox or tuberculosis, by recongnizing how we think about cancer. We are so terrified by the threat of that diagnosis that we are defeated by the very name. Sen. Humphrey, in his composure, in his steadfast good humour, is the Happy Warrior. He is teaching us a lesson we have forgotten: The spirit does not die.
We have reached a point of detesting death so utterly that we are debasing life woth our fearing and tubullent emotions. We don't want to think it - we shrink back from the dying and hide them, as we occasionally and reproachfully remind ourselves, in curtained hospital coners. If the processes of life - one of which is dying - can be so hateful, then the life we hug in our terror is idotically meaningless, then there is no spirit, no heritage but genetic, and we ourselves are but a statistically random occurence in a motonic infinity.
Efforts are under way here to establish houses for the dying. It makes better sense than to have dying people in a hospital, given up for hopless, terrifying the personnel so theat, although the staff can perform the mechanical services perhaps, they cannot give succor. Such houses, sometimes called hospicies, are a charateristic of our times . . .the specialized institution for yet another category of person.
In may be a very worthwhile and needed idea. But it is not the picture of the good death as earlier generations of Americans had imagined it sometimes died it. It is not the ancestor rich in years and wisdom - his or her family gathered about the bedside right down to the great-grands - taking a gentle leave. The hospice suggests, although it isn't the intention of those working in them, a final processing out of the human unit. Not from ashes to ashes, not from dust to dust, but thou wert born under ceiling lights, surrounded by tile walls, unto the hands of strangers and under the same fluorescence you shall be conducted by professionally qualified strangers into the void.
To die by means other than by being processed upon - by yet the last of string of institutions through which the moving sidewalk has taken us - we cannot be passive. Sen. Humphrey is showing us that death need not be as it is depicted on TV, something that comes to us, that is inflicted on us, done to us. It can be an act we do. It can be the capstone of a life of meaning, and by doing it right we impart meaning, and by doing it right we impart meaning to others.
In times past people spoke of an edifying death, an instructive death, for he who shows us how to die shows us how to live. That is Hubert Humphrey's last and best gift to us. God bless him.