Ars Moriendi – The Art of dying (well)

I would like to speak about the medieval notion of the Ars Moriendi or The Art of dying.

The term comes from a genre of Christian literature of the late Middle Ages. There were a number of books produced to help people manage the dying process. They were known under the title, Ars Moriendi. I would like to add the word “well” to the term – the art of dying well – to clarify the nature of this deeply Christian approach. How to die well.

In the face of moves to introduce euthanasia into law in Tasmania, the Christian can do well to reflect on our approach to the dying process. A person of faith approaches death in a particular way. We understand death not as an end to life, but as a transition in life. In our Catholic funeral Mass we say, “life is changed not ended”.

It is helpful to be aware of the context in which the concept of the Ars Moriendi emerged. The late Middle Ages in the history of Europe was a dark time: there was plague – the Black Death – and almost constant warfare that killed millions of people. People looked to their faith as a source of comfort in the midst of the horror that they encountered all around them. In particular, people sought help in facing death which was a very evident reality. Hence, there emerged literature which provided a practical guidance in the face of death, the Ars Moriendi.  

Addressing the question of dying well the principal focus was on the spiritual needs of the dying. The writings reminded them to have faith in Christ’s love and assisted them in facing final temptations, preparing them for Heaven which awaited them after death. The literature also provided guidance for family and friends, instructing them how to behave at their loved one’s bedside and suggesting ways to pray for their immortal soul.

Our Christian faith offers much help in facing death. The Christian understands that the dying person could be accompanied by prayer. They are to be spiritually supported. Our Catholic tradition has the Sacrament of the dying, known in the past as Extreme Unction (the last anointing) but today called the Anointing of the Sick. Priests know well how comforting this sacramental moment is to the dying person. It is also a source of great consolation to family and friends watching their loved one die. 

For every human person death is inevitable. However dying well may be only something managed by a few. What constitutes a good death?

Consider these facts:

  • Around 80% of Australians want to die at home but less than 20% do.
  • Dying in the 21St century is a lot more predictable and drawn out compared to almost any period of history due to advances in medicine.
  • Despite being one of the certainties of life, death is rarely spoken about in our society.
  • As 80% of deaths are occurring in a hospital, hospice or aged care institution it is not a front of mind matter for most people unless it happens to one of their family or friends.
  • It is not uncommon in our time for people to be discovered dead in their home after they have died, because the transitory nature of suburban life had made us less socially connected.

While these days the dying process often engages health professionals, it is in the end a profoundly human experience. With the advances in medicine and because for many people the dying process in managed by experts, the profound human dimension can be overlooked, despite the best intentions of health professionals.

Family and friends can become onlookers and may feel a little at a loss as to how they can be more directly engaged with their loved one.

In our society dying well can be reduced to a focus on avoiding unnecessary suffering. This is what drives the push for assisted suicide.

But dying has many other dimensions. The suffering is not just physical, but is a profound human experience which involves an emotional, psychological and spiritual dimension.

Dying brings our life into focus. The phrase, ‘our life flashed before us’, reminds us that in dying we do look back on our life, on our experiences, our decisions, our relationships, our beliefs. It draws all that we are and have become into a focus. Dying becomes the moment of the distillation of our life.

The recent pandemic has shown graphic images of people dying alone denied the accompaniment of family and friends. They are surrounded by machines and people in PPE. Even more sad were the images of rows of coffins buried in mass graves. Here in Australia many felt keenly the denial of attending a funeral service.

All this offended our human sensibility. Death and dying is something which engages us very personally.    

Death is not just the cessation of life, but it is a journey. It is a journey from this life to the next. Such a journey is profoundly human and involves all aspects of our humanity: the psychological, emotional, and spiritual, as well as the physical.

For a person to die well the whole person needs to be considered. In the dying process a person lets go of earthly preoccupations and surrenders to a path which leads them ultimately to face the Living God.

It is very true that our society does not manage death well. Hence it is understandable that the solution of assisted suicide is seen as an attractive way out.

The sad thing about assisted suicide is that we largely abandon the person. Here we dodge our real responsibility towards the dying and, really, we fail to assist them to be able to die well.

In the end the dying process is deeply personal. However, we can do so much to accompany and support the person so that they have a good death, surrounded with love and spiritual support.

The Ars Moriandi offers some important insights into the dying process. For example it addresses possible temptations that a person may experience in the face of death.  Those temptations were lack of faith, despair, impatience, vanity and greed. The way to die well, then, was to fight these temptations with their opposites. Dying well meant having faith, hope, patience, humility and generosity.

There is a website developed by the Catholic Church of England and Wales called “the Art of Dying well”. It offers a range of resources about talking about death, facing death personally and care for the dying, as well as bereavement and practical advice about funerals. It continues the Christian tradition of offering spiritual comfort and guidance for those experiencing the dying process, either themselves or a loved one. 

The Christian tradition has much to offer as our society once again debates the issue of assisted suicide. Faith offers a perspective such that the choice to end one’s life intentionally denies a person the opportunity to see their journey to its proper and appropriate completion.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

Tasmanian Conference for the Australian Christian Lobby

June 29, 2020

Tags: Burnie-Wynyard, Northern Deanery, Speeches