Hum(m)us & Mortality

Our spiritual care lead at the hospice Andrew has kindly written another blog article on Mortality (the first was on Spiritual Care - see here).


Spiritual care brings to palliative settings the wisdom carried by the great faith traditions, and this is especially true with regards to mortality.


At the start of lent many Christians share an event during which foreheads are marked with ashes with the intonation, “from dust you have come, to dust you will return’. This symbolic reminder of mortality is not morbid in intent but rather a reminder of the finitude of life and an encouragement to set one’s priorities. Its roots are in Hebrew Mythology whereby the first human is described as formed from the dust of the earth. This pre-historic description of carbon based life, or to be more poetic, as animated stardust, encourages us to have a realistic view of ourselves, not least as inextricable connected to the natural world. This first human is named ‘Adam’ meaning ‘of the earth’ and we are wise to remember that for all our collective achievements we remain daughters and sons of Adam.


From this comes an understanding of mortality whereby we are not only subject to the inevitability of death but throughout all our lives we are frail, vulnerable and limited. This is underlined when Adam’s grandson is called ‘Enosh’ the Hebrew word for mortal that doesn’t simply mean subject to death but also someone who is fragile and in need of community. In palliative care we work with people all too aware of their mortality who are sometimes struggling to come to terms with life’s limitations. Perhaps this struggle is all the greater given we live in Western societies that perpetuate the illusion of immortality, understood as life without limits including death which is ever more side-lined in contemporary society with illness regarded too often as some type of failure. But what if we can present mortality as part of what it is to be human – not just at the end of life but throughout? In fact, in accepting, even embracing our limits and our need for one another and nature we actually discover what and who matters most in life, discoveries that can help us in the end-of-life process.


And of course, those of us involved in caring with the dying do well to be aware of our own mortality if we are to avoid dangerous illusions and saviour complexes. Which is why one more word from the spiritual care lexicon is especially helpful. The Latin word for soil or earth is humus – its where the name of the foodstuff made from ground chickpeas originates which can taste a bit soily at times! It is also the roots word for humility - to be humble is to be down to earth, realistic with a healthy understanding of our place in the scheme of thing not least our limitations. All the great faith traditions present humility as an essential for wise living and I would suggest a crucial virtue for both those facing end of life and those who would care with them.