NEWS FEATURE: The American Way of Death _ Time for An Overhaul

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The Rev. Chuck Meyer longs to alert modern Americans that they have choices when it comes to death and dying.

“We’ve medicalized death over the last 50 years,” said Meyer, vice president of operations for St. David’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas, and an expert on pastoral care for the dying and their families.

Today, he said, 85 percent of deaths are in medical settings. In 1950, 50 percent of deaths occurred at home.

Meyer longs to offer the dying and their families more informed choices without placing all the responsibility for that education on either physicians or clergy.

“Chuck has been a pioneer in this field,” said Jack Campbell, former CEO of St. David’s. “His greatest accomplishment has been changing the attitude of many physicians, nurses and other hospital personnel. Over the past couple years, I bet he’s also spoken to 50 to 100 medical staffs in various parts of the country.”

While both doctors and clergy should receive better training in these areas, Meyer’s target audience is the average person. He would like to see death demystified in popular circles so that the average person is better informed and even television depicts death with less hype and more humanity.

He is also often an outspoken critic of the institutional church, as evidenced in one of his most recent books, “Dying Church/Living God” (Northstone Publishing). In that work, he challenges the reader to examine organized religion and ask difficult questions.

In the field of death and dying, Meyer recommends that to prepare for death the average person discuss with his or her family how that individual would define “quality of life” as well as fill out a “living will,” which outlines the kind of treatment one wants at the end of life. It should also provide a medical power of attorney, which designates who will make decisions for someone when that person no longer can and decide whether to donate organs to science.

An Episcopal priest, he is the author of two books on death and dying, “A Good Death: Challenges, Choices and Care Options (Twenty-Third Publications) and “Surviving Death: A Practical Guide to Caring for the Dying and Bereaved” (Twenty-Third Publications), now in its second edition. Both books explore the complex issues faced by the terminally ill, their families, health care workers and pastoral caregivers.

“One of the things I talk about in the “Surviving Death” book is that one of the things the church can do is to develop care teams that support patient and family from the instant of initial diagnosis, all the way to illness and death and the bereavement of the family,” Meyer said in an interview.

“That’s what hospice does, of course. But wouldn’t it be interesting if the church did that, too? I say in “Surviving Death”: Be there. Be there. Be there.

“Because most people won’t be. People run like turkeys when someone gets a terminal diagnosis. People start staying away in droves. We start distancing ourselves from a person with the fantasy being `If I distance myself as a person from you now, by the time you die, it won’t hurt as much.’

“The opposite is true. You get hurt a lot more by staying away. Your pain is in the distance.”

In 1969, he married Debby Whisenhunt. One cold winter day in 1977 strolling the snowy streets of New York, he confided to his wife that he no longer liked his job as a prison chaplain.

“We put the house up for sale and it sold like the next day. We picked up and moved to Austin in 1977 with no jobs,” he said. They reasoned Austin was a college town and a government center and that they’d find work. Both did.

Life seemed hopeful and happy for the young couple. Then Debby died in 1982 of toxic shock syndrome of unknown origin, Meyer said. She was 34.

Six years later, Meyer remarried _ to another Debi, a school psychologist and occupational therapist. He became quite close to her daughter, Michal, 6, after the couple wed.

Before their marriage, Debi Meyer had been pronounced cured of leukemia following a bone marrow transplant in 1987. Four years later she was found to have relapsed. She has fought the disease ever since.

“Probably the most powerful experience of this period has been our daughter, Michal,” Meyer said. “Watching her grow up and my own continued growth with her and bouncing ideas off of her. A large part of my life at this time has come from interacting with her.

“The other piece to that tripod has been the three of us dealing with Debi’s leukemia. That reinforced what I already deal with at the hospital every day.

“That nothing is guaranteed. We only have today. I could be in ICU (intensive care unit) tomorrow. I could be doing your funeral tomorrow or you could be coming to mine,” Meyer said.

“I have also watched Debi deal with this all with grace and humor and sensitivity,” he said. “It’s almost like she says, `I’ve got this disease, but it doesn’t have me.’

“Her other famous line is: `I am not the disease.’ ”

Drawing from his life and his work, Meyer would overhaul the way death and dying are approached in both religious life and health care. He draws from his own experience in developing ideas and strategies.

His work and his writing led Meyer to his newest frontier, his ongoing involvement in Last Acts. The nationwide partnership works to improve care of the dying by raising awareness through conferences, online discussion groups, professional education and other activities. Former first lady Rosalynn Carter is honorary chairman.

Death and dying is his main focus today because the issues surrounding end-of-life care combine elements of everything he’s ever cared about.

“It’s sort of the bottom line of everything I’ve done for 30 years,” he said. “Empowering people to make the best choices for themselves. Making sure that they have all the data they need at their disposal.”

“We see death as another disease to be cured, rather than as a transition to be managed, and learned from, assisted and supported, and allowing a natural death,” Meyer said.


His experience as a husband, father and friend has molded his outlook as much as his work. In his personal roles, he has loved people who are gravely ill, and ministered to their families and friends.

“One of the things I talk about in “A Good Death” is that a good grief often begins with good death. If the death experience has been really, really painful and fraught with dissension and plain out physical pain, that’s what you’re going to look back on,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. It really can be a different kind of experience that is relatively pain free and with the best end-of-life care all the way to the end.

“Jesus said I will be with you always and that’s what we need to give people, to be with them always, all the way through to the end,” Meyer said.

Among Meyer’s strengths are his humor and high energy level, said Sally Barthel-Heinze, a lay chaplain at St. David’s, who has known him for more than a decade.

“He cuts to the chase and yet he has genuine concern for and cares about his fellow beings. He cares most about empowering and helping these folks figure out what they can do rather than just giving them the answer, spoon feeding them,” she said.

“His fault probably is that there is nothing he thinks he can’t do. He is determined. Health care in this millennium is not an easy thing and it is extremely frustrating for someone like Chuck who always wants to have the patient as the focus and is isn’t always that way,” she said.


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