The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Is There a Stigma about Dying?, part 2

A question submitted to an interfaith panel on approaches to hospice care: “If we all agree that God controls both birth and death, why do we not accept his decision at that time? We seem to put a large/negative stigma on dying.”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

/The Rapidian

Two weeks ago, I shared the Christian responses. This week, I’m sharing the Jewish, Hindu, Islamic, and Unitarian responses.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Unitarian Universalists have been very vocal and active supporters in the Death with Dignity movement. First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon has long been a leader for this cause. In 1988 our denomination passed a resolution advocating for the right to self-determination in dying. We are strong believers and advocates for a patient’s right of choice and autonomy in making medical decisions. We strongly support both a women’s right to choose and a patient’s right to die with dignity.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“Let’s begin by saying that not all of us agree with the premise. Hinduism encourages devotees to abandon the notion of God as ‘The Great Chess Master’ who (seemingly) arbitrarily decides that it’s time for this or that person, though they may be only hours old, to move to another plane. But I will agree that death is part of the natural process of life that was initiated by God. Here we can look to the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter IX) where it states, ‘Death am I! Immortal life I am!’ And in Chapter II, ‘Life cannot slay, Life is not slain!’ We see here that the actual process of death is a part of Divinity, as is immortality.  Moreover, what we think of as death is merely a transition.

“But having said all that it still is very painful to see a loved one take that journey. We cannot use these quotes to hold life with any less value.  It’s all about maintaining balance. I find that the quest to maintain someone on life support regardless of the quality of life they might experience to err on one side, while haphazardly taking innocent life the other extreme.”

Dr Sahibzada, the Director of Islamic Center and Imam of the Mosque of Grand Rapids, responds:

“God is the Creator of things. No doubt He controls birth and death. The End of life is the first hurdle to be removed to be back to our original eternal residence. It is a clear commandment that every living must taste death in this world. It is matter of perception to put a large negative stigma on dying. I will be placed under an umbrella of faith to be with God eternally. To Him we belong and to Him is return.”

My response:

Judaism places conception, birth, life, and death in the hands of God. At the same time God gives human beings the responsibility of properly protecting and nurturing life, and making decisions about medical care at critical moments (which includes decisions about protecting the life or health of a pregnant woman by aborting a pregnancy).

But Jews, no less than any other religious or secular segment of our society, have been influenced by a culture which has a problem facing illness and death, illustrated by the language we use. We talk about the war against cancer. We fight against disease. Our obituaries commonly commonly describe death as the losing a battle. In traditional Western medicine, the role of a doctor is to fight the disease. When the patient survives, the doctor wins. When the patient dies, the doctor has failed. This kind of language is not useful. It doesn’t lead us to constructively engage with the fact that we are mortal. We might postpone the inevitable for a few months, years, or decades, but no creature in the history of planet earth has yet defeated death.

I suggest that we think of ourselves as living with cancer or an illness, rather than fighting against it. That means that medical decisions ought to be values-based decisions, not just decisions based on the bio-chemical functioning of the human body.  It means that we choose a treatment regimen based on how we want to live rather than a fear or avoidance of death.

If we treated aging, illness, and death as a process rather than a battle, it would dramatically change the way we live our lives, especially when nearing the end. The practice of medicine is changing to reflect this truth. Palliative medicine believes in treating the patient according to his or her values. It means trying to find a cure for the illness as aggressively as the patient wants, for as long as the course of treatment is reasonable. It means managing the pain and choosing  treatment so that the patient has the quality of life that he seeks. The Jewish approach embraces our autonomy to seek medical care to lengthen our lives and an acceptance that death is an inevitable end of every human life.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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