How Ought We Die?


Derek Ayeh in The New Inquiry:

Imagine the dying patient today: sitting in the intensive care unit, hooked up to a ventilator that artificially pumps their heart and a feeding tube because they can no longer eat on their own. The patient could be on several drugs or antibiotics, hooked up to devices that keep an eye on every bodily function, or even need hemodialysis because their kidneys have failed. All the while physicians scramble about doing everything in their power to keep this patient alive as long as they possibly can, even when they know that time is limited. Why? Because this person is a patient in a hospital and everyone knows you go to hospitals to get better, not to die.

Lydia Dugdale gives such a description in her Hasting’s Center Report article “The Art of Dying Well.” Dugdale claims that American society is ill equipped for the experience of dying. Instead a physician’s focus is solely on perpetuating life as long as possible, and the family often times desires the same thing. According to Dugdale, today’s focus on continued life doesn’t make dying any better than in the mid-fourteenth century in Europe during the Bubonic plague epidemic. Then, the constant presence of death turned society’s attention to ensuring that the dying would receive a good death.

To aid laypeople in giving their loved ones good deaths, the Catholic Church created a text called Ars Moriendi, the Art of Dying, in 1415. It guided the layperson through the dying process by teaching them the appropriate prayers, preparations, and listing questions that the dying person should consider and answer about their life as a way of confirming that they lead a repentant and righteous life. But one could start considering what it meant to die well just by being in close proximity with the dying. By encountering the prescribed preparations, others involved were able to think critically about death and the inevitable end of their own lives. The Ars Moriendi in time expanded into its own genre, with numerous religious authorities reinterpreting what it meant to die well and promoting their own texts. These guidebooks were written for centuries after.

The original Ars Moriendi consisted of six separate sections, each serving to help either the dying individual or his or her close ones through prayer and guidance. Part two, for example, deals with five temptations that the dying person faces in death: lack of faith, despair, impatience, vainglory, and avarice. These temptations were devils that came to the dying man’s bedside and tried to tempt him towards hell. For despair, the devil says, “Wretched one, look at your sins which are so great that you would never be able to acquire grace.” But with each temptation comes a remedy, the words of a good angel meant to inspire and comfort. In this case, the angel reminds the dying of the sinners who confessed late and still received grace.

More here.