I paid little attention to Tammy Faye Bakker during her PTL days. But I gave her close scrutiny the day before she died, when she appeared on Larry King Live. Her eyes, which formerly sparkled with an indomitable spirit, had faded. Tammy Faye's mascara, her trademark even when it ran with tears down her cheeks, foreshadowed her decay. Tammy Faye's skin hung off her cheekbones.

I saw defiance and a Christlike countercultural challenge behind her eyelashes. She lived publicly, and she died publicly. Tammy Faye was unafraid to show us the ravages of cancer and remind us of the decay that was brought into the world through sin. Tammy Faye reminded us that dignity comes from the character we display in the circumstances God allows for us, whether withered by cancer or in the peak of health.

After her televised farewell, how she died became as much a part of her story as her PTL days. I was proud to call her a sister in Christ.

Only a century ago, public deaths like Tammy Faye's were common. "In the early 20th century, it was not always easy to defend the bedroom of the dying from awkward expressions of sympathy, indiscreet curiosity, and all the other persistent manifestations of the idea of the public death," writes Philippe Aries in The Hour of Death, a survey of Western attitudes toward death over the last thousand years.

But by the second half of the 20th century, Aries writes, our culture had become horrified by death. Instead of residing in the home, where the most basic fact of human life could be openly acknowledged, death was transferred to the hospital, where only professionals and close family members needed to witness the indignity of terminal disease.

Lutheran novelist Walter Wangerin, who faces the cancerous rebellion ...

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