Legal, spiritual perspectives on dying explored in Town & Gown lectures

The third session of the 2016 Town & Gown Lecture series on Death & Dying Monday night dealt with both the legal and spiritual aspects of the end of life.

Addressing an audience made up of not only students on the Jackson campus of Union University but also those participating via live-stream from Hendersonville and Germantown, Joy Riley led off the evening with a lecture titled “In Five Minutes or Less: Donation after Cardiac Death.”

Riley is the Executive Director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture, and her talk centered around informing the audience of the complex ethical and legal issues that surround organ donation.

She opened her talk by referencing several particular cases, one in which a criminal that led Texas police on a dangerous high-speed pursuit was shot by authorities, was considered “essentially dead” but hooked up to life-support machines for organ harvesting.

Riley said situations like this are unique and distinct in human history, and the process of organ donation involved in these “cardiac death” situations, where a person may not be neurologically dead but their circulatory system has failed, pose unique ethical challenges.

Riley spent the bulk of her time informing the audience on real legal concerns with the current consent regulations for cardiac death organ donation as the United States moves toward a system that assumes consent.

Riley quoted Robert M. Veatch, who said the definition of death was important to think about because the definition represents “a debate over the moral status of human beings.”

Scott Huelin, director of the Honors Community and professor of English at Union, followed up with a lecture entitled “Memento Mori: Remembering Death in Art, Poetry and Devotion.”

Huelin said he came to recommend spiritual practices to spiritually enrich his audience’s view of death, as “death is something we spent a lot of time avoiding in our culture.”

Huelin’s lecture focused on the discipline of memento mori, remembering death, saying the one thing all human beings have is death. Huelin also said in this sense remembering is not a literal calling back to death, but rather being repeatedly mindful of the inevitability of one’s own death, allowing that to shape one’s life.

He said driving past Ridgecrest Cemetery every day when he first moved to Jackson unsettled him, but that “I think what unsettled me was everyday it said to me ‘you too must someday die.'”

Huelin continued by saying the reminder that “death is coming” prompted him to ask “how am I going to use this time? How can I best love my neighbor?”

Punctuating his points with reflective poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert and John Donne, Huelin argued that practicing memento mori will conform our souls to reality, help us rehearse our own deaths, die to sin and imitate Christ.

Huelin said Christ lived his whole life “with awareness of the death that was coming” but Christians ought to use memento mori as “an opportunity to rejoice in the hope of the resurrection.”

The series will continue April 25 at 6 p.m. in Providence Hall Room 160.