Wednesday, August 20, 2008


His last wish was to be buried in his own land.

Vick was a fifty-two-years old Seventh Day Adventist who faced his death with reality and faith. His pancreatic cancer was running rampant when he came into the hospice program. His doctor had told him he had less then six months to live. At first he said, "No way, I'll beat this little cancer." He visited various cancer centers across the country. He got involved with their methods without any success.

He and his wife lived in a mountain resort area that was not too well developed. Deep in the woods, it lay off an old logging dirt road that was more like trail ruts than a real road. Along the way as it wound its way into the wooded area, were various home sites, comprised of different sizes of mobile homes, some that were still called house trailers, and a mixture of houses that ranged from red brick to clap board, with a few log cabins scattered about. Like many of my patients, Vick and his wife had built the homestead themselves, and it never was quite finished.

Vick was a self-taught Bible scholar. We would spend hours sharing biblical passages and praying together. He never argued with me and he never quit praying for me. His Seventh Day Adventist faith was different from mine, but we spent our sharing time on the likeness of our faith rather than the differences.

Fifteen years earlier he and his wife Beth had come down from Chicago pulling a U-Haul trailer with all their belongings. They quickly adapted to the culture of North Georgia. They were involved in a three-member church. The "big church," as they called it, had a minister that disagreed with some of Vick's theology. The pastor asked Vick and Beth to find another place to worship because of the disagreement. So he and Beth started their own mission, which consisted of, Vick, Beth and a friend of theirs who left the big church.

When I met them, their meeting place was a small utility building on the edge of their property in the woods. In this church they practiced what they preached and believed. They opened their home to the homeless and those who were in need. They were good neighbors, even when they were walking through the dark valley of death. Vick once told me that the valley of death was the valley of hope as far as he was concerned. Indeed he saw the light of hope as he looked down the dark valley past the wearisome shadows.

I had just returned from a vacation trip and happened to stop by to visit with Vick and Beth earlier in the day than I normally came to visit. The dew was still fresh on the grass and shrubs. The morning coolness allowed me to ride with my jeep windows down. Several deer crossed the road as I turned into Vick's driveway off of the logging road. I noticed the freshness in the air as I parked my car and opened the door to get out.

I walked slowly up the path to the two-story unfinished house above the workshop. When I came up the steps to their little apartment, Beth came out of the workshop just below me. Looking up at me as I stood on the second floor porch, she announced, "Vick's dead." She came to the railing and stood at the bottom step. Calm and gentle, she continued, "He died early last night, or maybe this morning." She saw the shock on my face, but went on talking. "I was in the basement, getting him ready for his burial."

I knew that Vick wanted to be buried on his own land; he had picked out his plot, a grassy, level spot at the bottom of a small hill at the end of his property that was shaded by an old oak tree and some large white pine trees. Beth at first had a problem with the thought of her husband being buried in the front lawn; her daughter was out-spoken against it, claiming it was against the law. However Vick had researched what he would have to do to be buried on his own land, and found it could be done with little restriction: the burial plot of land could never be sold because it became county land when a body was buried in it. Also, he didn't want to be embalmed. This, too, was possible in North Georgia, as long as one was put in the ground within twenty-four
hours after death.

Beth came up the steps to me and shook my hand while we stood on the porch, saying to me, "I was painting his pine casket that a friend had made in Florida and delivered earlier this morning." She went on to explain saying three friends had come over at three this morning and dug the grave. "See, it's right over there." She pointed to the spot that Vick had showed me a couple of weeks ago. "The burial will be at ten o'clock. You will be here, won't you?"

"Of course," I answered. "Is there anything I can do?"

"No", she said. "The neighbors and friends are taking care of everything."

We talked briefly about her friends and her daughter and about how Vick loved his land and wanted to be buried on it.

I told her, "I'll be back before ten." I drove out of the woods and stopped by a gas station and phoned the office to tell them about the funeral and about my change of schedule for the day.

Around nine-thirty I drove up to Vick and Beth's house. There were cars and pick-up trucks parked everywhere. I was having difficulty finding a place to park; I feared getting off the road, because it had rained that morning after my earlier visit. The road was wet and muddy and the ground around the house was soggy. Someone appeared in front of me and signaled me to park right behind an old pickup.

Twenty or thirty friends and family members were standing around in little groups talking in low voices as they waited for the burial service to begin. Beth had told me that Vick didn't want a formal service. This was indeed an informal funeral in a very informal setting. A Korean woman, whom Beth and Vick had befriended years ago, had showed up and wanted to sing a hymn. There was also a minister friend who was planning to have prayer. Beth came to me and said, "You're going to say a prayer too, aren't you?"

"Of course, I'd be honored," I answered.

At ten o'clock, the sun came out. The thunderstorm had passed. Vick's friends, Beth and her daughter gathered around the freshly dug grave in the yard. Four friends carried Vick's casket out from the garage to the gravesite. The paint was not quite dry, but that did not seem to bother them. As they placed him over the grave, another friend started to read the twenty-third Psalm, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." After the Psalm was read, the Korean friend sang a beautiful hymn of faith. The minister friend stepped forward asked me to pray. After my prayer he and three other friends helped lower Vick into the ground. The minister prayed as he took the shovel and started putting dirt over the grave. Each of us took our
turn and shoveled the earth that Vick loved so much over his wooden casket. The people gathered around Beth and said their goodbyes, hugging and kissing her on the cheek. After I said goodbye to Beth, I drove out of the rutted road and down to the highway. I thought I could hear Vick say, "God is with me, His rod and staff comfort me."

That spring when I made bereavement visits to Beth, I drove down that same rutted road. As I came to the turn in the road that gave me a view of the home, I saw in front of me Vick's gravesite with a marble marker showing his name and dates of his birth and death. There was a beautiful flowerbed and small arbor setting snug against the mountainside, under the tall oak trees. He was resting in peace and Beth was pleased that she had granted his wish.

The death wish of a loved one is somewhat a country custom that speaks to the culture of that country. Some of the wishes come from folklore; some, from fears of the grave itself. Some come from nowhere in particular.

Vick's life taught me a lesson on personal and religious country values. He valued his faith, his land, his family and his friends. His wife and his friends valued his wishes. His religious friends honored his wishes for an informal burial, down to the pine box. Faith and religion and keeping one's word are important aspects of country culture.

The local ministers who pastor country churches are mostly bi-vocational. That is to say, they hold down regular weekday jobs and religious pastoring job on the weekends. Often times the church only meets every-other Sunday or once a month for preaching, with Sunday School held on the off "preaching days."

The pastors are a vital part of the community support system. Most of them are men of faith, Bible reading, shouting gospel preachers. However, there are some that come up short on the pastoral care end of their ministry when dealing with their members who are in the dark valley of the shadows of death. Vick's former pastor, the one mentioned earlier that dismissed Beth and him rather than practice the love that he preached, was unable to minister to either Beth or Vick.

I have worked for two hospices' over the last seven years. As best I can remember, I only received three or four referrals for admission to hospice from any
pastor. I have contacted well over two hundred and fifty churches throughout the areas our hospice serves. Only one church invited me to come and speak about hospice. I talked to my own town and country pastor. He is a seminary-educated, full-time paid pastor who is serving a country church. I asked, "Pastor, how is it that I hear you read the prayer list every Sunday morning in church with four or five members on that list that have cancer and yet you never have given me a single referral for hospice?"

"Well," he answered, "You know we pastors have to bring hope of getting well to our members. To recommend hospice is like saying God won't provide a miracle of healing if we show that we don't have faith."

I attempted as best I could to explain to him that hospice offers hope, the final hope. The ultimate miracle of God often comes when He takes His children in His arms and removes them from the dark shadows of death when they suffer with a disease like cancer, with all its pain and suffering and brings them into His presence where they have a new beginning.

Perhaps my pastor was right; most pastors I grew up with did not face their own death very well and seemed to see only death's dark shadows. For many years I too didn't think of the prospect of my own death. As I indicated earlier, it was Colby who reminded me of the lesson I learned in Vietnam and had forgotten: to keep my focus on my own death.

The ministers that I had the privilege to minister to in the hospice seemed to have a religious cultural pattern, which feared death. Having worked in two hospices situation my experience is limited and I am not suggesting that all ministers have such fear. What I learned from my ministering to ministers, who were in the hospice program as patients, was that ministers are like most people in need of God's love and the love of those around them. They, for the most part, know that they have to pass through the same dark shadowy valley of death like every one else that is facing their ending and heading toward their new beginning. Like many that face the prospect of their own death, they don't want to discuss it, hoping that by not talking about it, it will some how go away.

No comments: