Calling Out Being “Called”

by Rochelle Martin

I hear a lot of references these days to “being called” to work with the dying and dead – we use it in our conversations with each other online, in death doula training course outlines, in media interviews.  I think there are two ways in which the term “called” is often used re. deathcare work and I think both need reconsideration.

It is my guess that this term and concept first became popular in 20th Century protestant Christian languaging: “I feel called [by God] to…”   Over the years, it’s been overused and abused to justify anything and everything one might want to do in these circles (televangelists have been the most egregious abusers of this concept, perhaps, but pastors and parishioners use this language daily to achieve their ends).

“Being called” has been used so extensively that it’s slipped into our prevailing post-Christian Canadian culture’s lexicon, unchecked.  Now many people use it in a secular way.  They don’t mean to imply that some deity is calling them to care for the dying and dead;  what they mean is to convey an inner yearning (“call”) to do so.

I find both of these uses of “call” problematic.  The abused and overused religious usage often implies that one’s god is everyone’s god, or that a “calling” is unquestionable, having come from God.  These assumptions are easily discounted and dismissed, however, in our current secular environment.

It is the second, secular usage of “call” that offends me most – insidious in its unexamined self-righteousness and sentimentality.  Our “called-to-this-work” language essentially claims that caring for the dying or dead is a special calling in a way that raising sheep or cleaning offices or plowing snow, is not.

Perhaps caring for the dying and dead *is* more of a “calling” than those other types of work – but if so, I would argue that it is a *universal* calling.  If we are going to use the word “call,” we must acknowledge that we are all called, by nature of being human, to care for our dying and dead.  None of us can claim to have a “special calling” to this, any more than we should be claiming to have a special calling, for example, to breastfeed our babies.

Finally, if there *is* such a thing as a “special calling” to lead our communities in our care of our dying and dead, it should be a “call” that originates from the community – not something one feels/claims personally.  Stephen Jenkinson articulates this imperative to move away from individualistic/internal/personal understandings of death and dying, toward a communal/shared approach, in his latest treatise “Die Wise.”

It is not an easy lesson he brings, and it certainly isn’t “feel-good,” but it is a prophetic voice in the wilderness of our sentimentalized, if well-intentioned, death and dying culture.  Let us dive deeper – out of ourselves and into community.