Reflections on Faith and Death from a Recently Deceased Friend

Dr. Ernest Kurtz, author of the definitive history of Alcoholics Anonymous and many other fine books, passed away this week. We used to write each other regularly, and I am glad I saved his letters so that I could re-read them this week. At the time of our correspondence (1993-1997), I was a hospice volunteer and he was a former priest, which helps explain why many of our letters were about faith and death. It was an interesting experience to read what a friend who died a few days ago said about his mortality, 20 years in advance of the event. Here are three brief excerpts that struck me, from different letters:

I distrust all orthodoxy except the Roman church’s. (If you are going off the deep end, might as well jump high).

I would rather die eating a steak smothered in butter than live a long life on tofu and greens. Both theologically and existentially, I think it accurate that I have no fear of death. Any fear is of a stroke, and so I did do a living will — I do not think I would make a very good disabled person. (They might force tofu and nutrasweet and all that low fat merde on me.)

My life course, which has included hospital chaplaincy work and living in a terminal care hospital when I first arrived in Cambridge, has brought me around death quite a bit. And then there are my own heart attacks and the experiences that brought on the later angioplasty etc. My sense is that death is something we cannot imagine – on the chance that it is an adventure, though, I’m ready to go willingly. Close to death, the only regret most seem to have is that they were not kinder. But beyond that virtual truism, it seems to me that wanting to know about death is another manifestation of the human drive to control, and the frustration and consequent “denial” when faced with the inability to control. One reason I like the Catholic tradition is its openness to mystery. Confronted by mystery, the only response is awe. It can be hopeful awe or fearful awe or just plain awe. So far at least, my response is the last.

Rest in peace Ernie.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

One thought on “Reflections on Faith and Death from a Recently Deceased Friend”

  1. Keith Thank you for sending those memories and the comments by Ernie about death. They sound so like him, but seeing them today after his death, it's good to know. He went so quickly, I never had a chance to ask what he was expecting or how he felt about an afterlife. I think he answered that question – it was simply awe at the mystery. Linda Farris Kurtz

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