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LESSONS IN DEATH
AT TIMES LIKE THESE, IT'S IMPORTANT TO PONDER WHAT 'DYING WITH DIGNITY' TRULY MEANS

In the span of five days, three high-profile figures have died. Each of them has taught us something important about how we greet the end of our lives, and how we might want those who are left to mourn us.

When Terri Schiavo became a household name, her case caused many families to sit around the dining room table and talk frankly for the first time about how they would want to meet their end. Since then, not only has Schiavo died, but so have two admired and beloved leaders in the Catholic world, Bishop Edward Head of Buffalo and Pope John Paul II.

In many respects, it's an imperfect comparison to correlate Schiavo's death with that of two religious men who had the opportunity to live out the full course of their lives and died of old age. But in other ways, her case and theirs give us an opportunity to reflect on what the words "die with dignity" really mean. For most of us, this has little to do with politics or religion, and everything to do with humanity.

An old Chinese proverb says there's one way to be born, but a hundred ways to die. The aging and dying process begins the moment we take our first breath. And while no one wants to think about their last day, we all have some vague notion of wanting to go in a peaceful manner, surrounded by family and friends.

Schiavo never got that opportunity. Few of her own family were at her bedside when she passed away despite the national uproar surrounding her case. A victim of warring family members and a poster child for various religious and political interests, Schiavo seemed harassed even in death. Her husband and parents fought over her autopsy, planned separate funerals and disagreed over her final resting place.

Comparatively, when Bishop Head and Pope John Paul neared their end, their closest friends and relatives were called to their bedside to quietly say goodbye and thank them for what they meant to those left behind.

Upon their deaths, a call went out to the entire community of faithful, inviting mourners near and far to pay their last respects, to lay eyes once more on the person who meant so much to them in life, and to petition together for these men's ultimate reunion with God.

Many may disagree about Pope John Paul's true legacy to the world. Some called for him to resign when it became apparent that his illness would impede his ability to shepherd the Catholic flock. But if his very public decline has meant anything, it's taught us that both suffering and death can be as nobly accepted and embraced as birth and life.

A similar dignity surrounded the death of Buffalo's former bishop. At Head's funeral, Bishop Robert Cunningham of Ogdensburg recounted the last moments of the longtime church leader. Cunningham, who worked with Head in Buffalo for many years, gave his friend a sacramental anointing and told him once again how much he meant to the Diocese of Buffalo. Head wore an oxygen mask, but still managed to respond.

"Thank you for saying that," he reportedly told Cunningham. "It was very kind of you. I tried."

To leave this world with such grace is a gift. May that never be lost on us.