My father-in-law was one of 17 children, 12 of whom lived to adulthood. Five others died of assorted illnesses that were difficult to treat in the remote hills of West Virginia. My grandmother told tales of her baby brother, who died at age 2 of diphtheria in the hills of Appalachia in the early 20th century. Not long ago, I took care of a patient paralyzed by polio as a child and bedridden to this day, the late years of her life.
I’ve walked many a cemetery. I recommend it, particularly for the young. A cemetery, coupled with a little knowledge of history, is a great opportunity for perspective. In the remote sections of almost any graveyard, we can find so many stories — implied, but not told outright. A young woman, “cherished wife and mother,” lies by “infant son.” A young man, with the letters US or CSA on his stone, was laid to rest in 1863. He may well have died in battle (or later, from his wounds) or from one of the infections that ravage every war. The headstones of the elderly in those hallowed places were rare before the 20th century. Some lived into their 80s or 90s, but many passed in their youth or in what we consider middle age.
There were no cardiac catheterization labs for heart attacks. There were no ventilators to help the sick through the gasping struggles of heart failure. There were no antibiotics for the gangrene that developed from a simple puncture. There were no vaccines, which we now take for granted, to protect children from infections. The deaths of mothers and infants during delivery was painfully common. There were no helicopters to take the wounded from the battlefield, car crash or farm accident to safer, cleaner places.
Spend time among the dead, and say their names as a way of honoring their memory. And then consider your blessings. As much as we complain about the perceived inadequacy of our healthcare, it wasn’t so long ago that death stalked us much more effectively than today. And while we should always try to improve, we must keep the past in mind. The past: when pneumonia was a death sentence for adult or child. The past: when dehydration from cholera was devastating and uncontrollable. The past: when the Black Plague decimated one-third of our European ancestors. The past: when the flu, with no vaccine available, killed millions upon millions within two or three days of onset as recently as 1918.
Among the many things we can be thankful for this Thanksgiving, let us include the healthcare advances made possible by dedicated doctors, nurses and paramedics; by brilliant researchers and applied scientists; by politicians who provided encouragement and funding for public health initiatives. And let’s not forget the efficiency of industries that produced the products that have prolonged and improved our lives.
Ultimately, let us be thankful that God has given humans the knowledge and skill to pull back the curtain on death and find ways to ease so much suffering and save so many lives.
But, most of all, let us give thanks that Jesus Christ put an end to the power and fear of death once and for all by vaccinating us against the permanence of death.
That’s a reason for celebration.