Facing a new year, many of us reflect on our lives. You may be shocked that I would suggest that we talk about death, but after years of training in pastoral care in seminary and Clinical Pastoral Education, and more than 18 years as a hospice chaplain, I am very comfortable discussing death.
Through the years, I have participated in many exercises that encouraged me to get in touch with my feelings about death, even my own death.Let me share just two of these with you:
In a seminary class on death and dying, each of us was asked to fill out our own death certificate. I did fine with all the data except one: Occupation. With few opportunities for women in ministry, I became paralyzed with the thought that I might not be able to live out my calling as a woman in ministry — so I left it blank.
Several months ago, on a Wednesday night at church, we were asked to write our own obituary. Looking back over 76 years, I had a different perspective than before, because I had been able to live out so many dreams — dreams beyond my expectations. So I wrote the following with a sense of gratitude — and humor:
Zelma Mullins Pattillo was born near Wise, Virginia, on Nov. 18, 1938. She became 13th of 14 children in the Mullins household at Hickory Gap, birthplace of great, towering trees, and a few nuts. Her mother was deeply religious, strong and steady, and loved her family, making each of them feel blessed. Zelma’s father had a fun-loving spirit and made the purest moonshine in those parts — which was OK until he started dipping too much into his own recipe.
She started her academic career at the one-room Gilliam School at Hickory Gap, where Maude Collier taught grades one through five. In 1960, Zelma graduated from the university with a triple major in math, physics and history. The race to the moon was just beginning. Her math and physics profs suggested she should set a goal of becoming one of the first women in space; she hesitated to tell them that she suffered from motion sickness, even when riding a ferris wheel!
A different vision kept tugging at her heart, one she first expressed at age 15: a call to be a “woman preacher.” She set out to break barriers in inner space, of closed minds, closed pulpits, and closed doors to women in ministry. This was not an easy journey. Like riding a roller coaster. So she buckled her seatbelt tightly, had her barf bag nearby, also blinders in reach when she had to block out negative voices in order to keep the goal in focus.
She earned the M.A. and M.Div. from the seminary, served in many part time and interim positions. At age 50, she became a full-time hospice chaplain at Baptist Health Systems in Birmingham, and retired at 68 as coordinator of a team of 12 chaplains. What a wonderful gift — a place where she could truly live out her calling.
Near the end, her family leaned close to hear her whisper the words of Maya Angelou: “Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now!” Oh yes, she did finally finish her autobiography, leaving many memories, and a little cash — at least enough to have her cremated and her ashes taken back to Appalachia. Zelma’s father and brothers had fished in the mountain streams and graced their family table with beautiful rainbow trout. Her request was to have her ashes scattered in those streams, saying: “Lord knows I’ve eaten enough trout; now it’s their turn.”