Monday, August 18, 2008

When does death occur?

The bottom line is that we really don't know.

I remember a discussion back in seminary in one of Professor Marquart's classes concerning the question of baptizing a child that has just been pronounced dead - perhaps minutes or even hours ago. His advice: baptize the child. His rationale was that we don't know when the spirit actually leaves the body. What can it hurt to conduct the baptism and commit the child to God's mercy?

It's hard to argue with his logic.

I agree with Dr. Marquart's advice. Even medical science, with all its technology and instruments and professional expertise sometimes writes people off too soon - even premature babies, as in this remarkable case.

In spite of our technology and theology - we don't know how to tell with any precision when life on this side of the grave actually ends.

If we must err, let us err on the side of life and of grace.


Anonymous said...

When do you think the lines start to get blurred here, for I remember the same comment that Dr Marquart made? Or is this all about not drawing any lines, at all?

Because surely, we cannot give new birth, rebirth, to someone who is actually dead, right?

And if that is the case, and we know it, then are we simply using baptism to assuage the consciences of the parents? Are we in any position to "use" baptism like this? Don't you think that Dr Marquart's suggestion has the possibility of making baptism look like a "magical", hocus pocus performance?

(Questions that I thought when he said it in class and that I am reminded of by your post).


Thursday's Child said...

I'm one who would rather err on the side of mercy. It's better to baptize someone who's actually dead than to deny it to someone who isn't. If they're dead, you haven't hurt anything. But if they're living, then God has given them something wonderful. Either way, I would hesitate to say it was wasted.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Fr Bryce:

I think there are some situations where the lines simply *are* blurry - such as the question: "When does death actually occur?" Obviously, there does come a point of certainty - but if a body is still warm, who is to say the spirit has departed? The case of this Israeli child is one of many examples of when doctors were a little quick on the draw. It's not uncommon to read of people who drown in cold water, having their hearts stopped for hours, and then be revived. Obviously, in a case like that, the person was never dead at all - appearances to the contrary. Medical science can only take measurements - but there is no device that can detect the spirit.

That's all I'm saying.

I can't speak for the sainted Kurt Marquart (obviously), but I'm quite certain he wasn't advocating any kind of "hocus pocus." Of course, anything *can* be abused. I don't think a rare exceptional situation of baptizing a baby that has been pronounced dead a few minutes - or perhaps even a few hours before - is an abuse. As Miss Thursday said: if the child is dead, it hasn't hurt; if the child is alive, it is a real baptism. Why not just do it?

And certainly, we can't baptize a person who is truly dead - even with water and the right words. The question doesn't involve giving new birth to someone who is dead, the question is "When is a person dead?" Sometimes it's obvious - but sometimes it isn't (even when the child has been pronounced dead by a doctor and put into a freezer).

Pastoral care is so much more art than science. There are judgment calls we have to make (and we can, and will, screw up) - but fortunately, these really extraordinary cases are, by definition, rare. But they do happen, and I think it's good for pastors and lay-people to have already discussed these things before the rare thing happens.

Mike Green said...

Isn't "hocus pocus" derived from a misunderstanding of the latin "hoc est corpus meum...hic est sanguis meus"?

If that's the case, I suppose Holy Baptism really *is* a sort of hocus pocus. ;)

Anonymous said...

Mike, If we can trust what Wikipedia says, then your guess is partly correct:

Larry, I surely didn't mean any respect to Dr Marquart and would not propose that he meant baptism to be meant in a magical way. I simply wondered if some might see the practice of baptizing people "pronounced" dead in that way.

I think we might agree that baptism can be abused. Some people simply want their child baptized because they see it as a "ticket" to heaven and then you never seem them, or the child, again. What happens to the baptismal life then? I think we all regret these instances as they focus on one aspect of baptism to the exclusion of the rest.

I just wonder if this proposed use of baptism is an abuse or could lead to an abuse of one aspect of baptims to the exclusion of the other aspects? I imagine it could...


p.s. I give you permission to call me Bryce but I do appreciate your kindness in addressing me as Father. Some would not extend that courtesy!

Father Hollywood said...

Hey Bryce:

In the case where a baby has just been pronounced dead, the question is, "Is the child really dead?" These kinds of cases where they "come back to life" simply suggests that our ability to medically and scientifically make the call isn't infallible.

So, if a baby may or may not be dead (but we don't know), and yet the parents want the child baptized - I just don't see what choice we have.

Can you imagine refusing baptism to a child based solely on the pronouncement of a doctor only to have the child wake up in the freezer five hours later? Why take the doctor's word for it when it is a gray area? Too much is at stake.

Certainly all infant baptisms can lead people astray into an ex opera operato misunderstanding of baptism. Obviously, this is a common pastoral frustration (like the confirmands who "make their communion" and then disappear from the church). But such abuses of infant baptism don't drive us to deny baptism to infants.

I just can't see a down side to baptizing a baby when there is doubt that he or she is dead.

Anonymous said...

Larry, Where there is doubt I am sure I can't lodge a very good rebuttal.

But do you think these rare exceptions should begin to dictate sacramental policy? I am still a little weary.


Father Hollywood said...

Dear Bryce:

They are absolutely rare exceptions. And thus, by definition, don't dictate policy (even if the sacraments could be administered by policy).

But to paraphrase the famous bumper sticker: stuff happens.

The bottom line is we don't know when death actually occurs, at least not with precision. I've read and heard of enough of these kinds of situations to make me not so eager to treat the word of a doctor as final. I mean, when people get up out of the morgue and walk away (there have been a few of these cases this past year), either medical science isn't so ironclad as doctors would have us believe, or this is the set of another George Romero movie.

Every situation is different. I'm merely imploring my fellow clergy to keep these kinds of situations in mind if something similar happens.

You get one shot at a baptism in these kinds of life-and-death cases. What a tragedy it would be if you were to not carry out a baptism only to have the child wake up, and then die without the sacrament. In that case, not baptizing the child based on a physician's declaration is an appeal to policy.

I do think there is a general principle (not a policy) here: if there is any doubt, baptize first, ask questions later. Situations like this Israeli child simply raise the bar of doubt - at least it does for me.

Bryce P Wandrey said...

You know, this is why some people insist on being cremated: they don't want to be buried alive. But then again, being burned alive doesn't sound all that fun either. :)

Father Hollywood said...

Just put a box of Partagas in the coffin with me. Of course, those things'll kill ya.

Bryce P Wandrey said...

Larry, You have inspired me to resurrect my pipe (which was purchased in Fort Wayne) and light it up.