Back in the olden days, it was not unusual for a house to have a room set aside that was actually called the “Birthing and Dying Room.” The name says it all. It was assumed that during the course of any family’s normal life, someone – several people, actually – would give birth and/or die. Before antibiotics and birth control, it is not hard to understand how this could be. Birth and death were much more frequent and more immediate, and were not surrounded with the illusion of scientific control that we have built up around them today. And the home, rather than the hospital, was where the mundane, everyday mysteries of birth and death happened.
We live in a different world now. It is nearly impossible to imagine what it would be like to have a “Birthing and Dying Room” in our homes. But I have caught glimpses of what this would be like. My father died many years ago at home under hospice care. However, I could not be there when it happened. I do know what room he died in, though, and I can easily imagine in my mind what the scene was like. (It helps that, as a priest, I have been at dozens of deathbeds and have a very real, concrete picture of what it is like.) Sometimes I think about that when I am in that room in my Father’s house. I imagine my Dad dying there, as if remembering it, though of course I am not really remembering it because I wasn’t there. The room is somewhat altered for me – but not in a bad way. Thinking about my Dad dying there does not fill me with sadness or pain. Picturing that death in that room helps me to accept it. It is actually soothing. I sometimes wonder if I would feel different if I had been present when he died, but I seriously doubt it.
My house now has a Birthing and Dying Room. One of our cats – a small grey-striped cat who is sweet, shy, and unusually soft - is incurably sick. The veterinarian will come to our house tomorrow to euthanize her. I am not sure what room this will take place in, but most likely, it will be in the room that has been functioning as her “hospice” room for a couple of weeks now. She has a special cozy bed in a box in that room, where she has been spending most of her time lately. We’ve been giving her extra loving and attention, knowing that these are indeed her last days. Oh … did I mention that this is also the guest room? And our diaper-changing room? And the sewing room? And the room with the old spare computer in it? And the room where my son Wesley was born? It has been a birthing room and served many other less momentous functions in our family life. Tomorrow, it will be the dying room.
I do think often about Wesley’s birth in that room. When I am in that room and recall the real, concrete, actual details of labor and birth that happened there – most of which are surprisingly mundane – it does not fill me with the otherworldly elation that you might think it would. But it does fill me with a sense of wonder, a sense of something huge having happened in the midst of all those mundane details and the un-sentimental bodily mess of birth, something having shifted forever in that space. Like the room where my Dad died, the room where Wesley was born is changed. Once, for a moment in that specific place, the veil between this world and the next was dissolved. At odd, random times, I can sense it still, even while changing the diapers, making the bed, emptying the trash, or going about some other everyday task in there.
Although I am very sad that my cat is dying, I am deeply, deeply soothed by the fact that this is taking place in the Birthing and Dying Room. Once again, the veil between worlds will dissolve there, something will change forever, and the room will be marked. For a brief part of the day tomorrow, the room will be set aside for a really important, sacred purpose. The tasks of life will continue – the room will probably be used for a diaper change shortly thereafter – but something or someplace that was once made holy can never be entirely de-consecrated.
All of our scientific advancements and technologies cannot remove the mystery from birth and death. I have had hard-core atheists confide to me that the one time they ever began to believe in something totally other, something bigger and mysterious and amazing and beyond all of us, was either at a birth or at a death. There is a reason that so many religious rituals, the world over and throughout the ages, surround birth and death. Birth and death are ultimately humbling. They remove us from a place of self-centeredness, and cause us to give homage, if even for just a moment, to something that is indeed bigger and more wondrous than any of us, beyond our understanding or control. In the face of birth and death, we become aware of mystery, of holiness, of a depth to reality that is not always perceptible but, nonetheless, feels profoundly real. We sense, deep within, the truth that we are not the center of the universe and not in control - even if we managed to pre-arrange a convenient time with the obstetrician who is performing the C-section, or with the veterinarian who is administering the euthanasia.
Having a birthing and dying room in the home invites the mystery to be present in the midst of the mundane tasks of everyday life, permeating and infusing the ordinary with holiness. It creates a space that can never quite be de-consecrated, that is forever altered. While I have no desire to return to life before antibiotics or birth control, and while I know all too well that not all births and deaths are as “ideal” as my children’s births or my Dad’s death, there is nonetheless something good and true and wonderful about having the reality, the space, the memory, the experience of birth and death right there, woven in with the mundane. You would think that a constant reminder of how NOT in control I am would be anxiety-producing, but my experience has been the opposite. It gives deep peace, oddly, while reminding me that I am ever dependent on something beyond myself. I feel held in the mystery, connected to that wondrous other in some deep, indissoluble bond that holds fast through life and death. I am convinced that in losing the Birthing and Dying Room in our homes, something spiritually important has been lost. Our souls are the worse for it. How can we re-gain the wonder, the humility, the sense of mystery, the sacredness, the experience of the veil between this world and the next dissolved in the same spaces where we go about the business of our daily lives?