Reclaiming the Lost Art of Dying

As I continue to reflect on the recent CBHD bioethics conference, there are several of the sessions that stand out to me. One was the presentation by John Kilner at the conclusion of the conference that I wrote about last week. Another was the very first presentation as the conference began. Lydia Dugdale spoke on the topic of “Reclaiming the Lost Art of Dying.” Many of us have recognized that there is a tendency for people in our current culture to die poorly. Dr. Dugdale suggested that our difficulty in dying well is related to our level of medical technology. Because modern medicine is able to do so much in treating and curing diseases, the allure of a cure can keep people from accepting the reality of death. She gave as an example a case of a woman with incurable cancer who never addressed the reality that she was dying because every time one treatment failed another was recommended.

She reminded us that there was a time in the middle ages when people were taught the art of dying well through a text titled “Ars Moriendi.” This booklet was published in the 1400s following the ravages of the bubonic plague in both literate and illiterate versions to help people prepare for death. It included instructions on preparing willfully for death and accepting it gladly when the time came. It spoke of avoiding temptations such as impatience, despair, pride, and doubt. It included a catechism pointing to the truths of the Christian faith and prayers for those who were dying.

She asked if something like this were possible for us today and suggested that bioethics could be a framework for learning how to die well. It can help us recognize our finitude and the limits of medicine. It can also point us toward community which can provide the support needed for those who are dying to die well. This may be as far as those in a secular setting, like the one in which Dr. Dugdale works, can go. However, those of us who share Christian faith should be able to take this farther. She challenged us with a quote from Jean-Claude Larchet’s book The Theology of Illness in which he says, “Ask God not in the first place for the return of health, but for what is spiritually most useful.” That points us back to what was understood in the days that the Ars Moriendi was written. Dying is an important part of our spiritual life, and we can grow spiritually through the experience of our own death as well as how we care for others as they die.

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