In this week’s episode, Carl Magruder tells us how he became an “accidental chaplain.” As part of his seminary training, the only field work that he could find was as a hospital chaplain. “All of my cleverness and rhetoric and argumentation was completely worthless at the bedside of a person who was suffering,” he recalls, “and I could take all of that off and leave it in the hospital corridor, and just to go in with nothing in my hands and no agenda and to sit down in the chair like I had no where else in the world to be, and just open myself to the being that was there.”
As a chaplain and as a Friend, Carl encourages us to think deliberately about our death and how we might choose to face it. “I don’t have all the answers and what’s right for the individual is very individual,” he says, “but… we don’t think about it, we don’t talk about it, then we catch a diagnosis and it’s very hard and scary to think about and talk about.”
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Working as a healthcare chaplain — you know, almost all modern healthcare chaplains are interfaith chaplains. It’s actually against the chaplain’s code of ethics to prosthelytize any particular faith, and so my Quaker faith set me up very well for that — just to understand that there’s that of God in every person and to be genuinely curious to meet them where they are.
On Quaker Deathways: Practices Around Death and Dying
I’m Carl Magruder. I use he/him pronouns. I live in San Diego county, and I’m a member of Strawberry Creek Friends Meeting.
So I have found myself an accidental chaplain. I went to seminary, it wasn’t working for me, so I went to do my field ed and the only thing that was open was a hospital chaplaincy residency, and so I went and did that and what I discovered was that all of my cleverness and rhetoric and argumentation was completely worthless at the bedside of a person who was suffering, and I could take all of that off and leave it in the hospital corridor, and just to go in with nothing in my hands and no agenda and to sit down in the chair like I had no where else in the world to be, and just open myself to the being that was there. And because of my Quaker belief that there is that God in every person, and that therefore people have within themselves what they need to be whole but they might need a little midwifery; they might need a little witness; they might need someone to create a container or to affirm their instincts where those instincts are intuitive rather than rational — that it might be a little something to do but basically it’s just an honor to be able to be present to people.
How Are Quakers Prepared for Death and Dying?
There are some aspects of death and dying that I think Quakers do very well, and one is that we tend to be able to prepare. We tend to be able to say, “this is what I want.” We tend to do a better job, I think, of recognizing when there is no real curative treatment and it’s time to opt for hospice, and to turn ourselves towards our dying and think about how we want to die well. When I joined hospice, we had a patient who wanted to stop eating and drinking. It’s called VSED, voluntary stopping of eating and drinking, and it was interesting to me that the hospice nurses considered it a truism; that people always throw that idea around but no one can do it. But I have known quite a few Quakers to have done it including Kenneth Boulding and Scott Nearing, who are well-known Quakers, but also Quakers in the Grass Valley Friends Meeting, and it’s regarded as a very holy thing and very respected, so there are things that I think Quakers can do very well in our dying and our deathways.
How Can Quakers Better Prepare for Death and Dying?
I think the first thing is for Quakers to talk about death and dying in the meeting and to talk about what we might want, and to just make it okay to talk about death and dying. You may have heard there’s a movement of “death cafés,” and I guess I would like to see Quakers do “death potlucks” where we would talk about our death and dying in an intergenerational way because if we can think about it and face it and talk about it and compare notes and answer queries like, “when has someone died in your life where you felt that there was beauty and connection in it?” and to tell those stories and to think about how we might do it differently. I don’t have all the answers and what’s right for the individual is very individual, but what I think happens is that we don’t think about it, we don’t talk about it, then we catch a diagnosis and it’s very hard and scary to think about and talk about.
One of the doctors I work with, a palliative care physician, is fond of saying, “It’s never been harder to die well than it is now,” because medicine has enough intervention that it can really cloud the question of, “Am I dying? Should I die at home? Should I have CPR? Should I be incubated?” whereas 100 years ago, for instance, people died. There wasn’t a lot to be done about it. They were cared for at home and it wasn’t as unclear, and we need to really look at that and see how we arrived where we are and how we might enrich our Quaker deathways.
- As Carl asks in the video, when has someone died in your life where you felt that there was beauty and connection in it?
- How does your community talk about death and dying?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.