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04.10.2018

The Art of Dying | Connecting with Culture

Picture this: 14th Century Europe. The Black Death is sweeping across the continent, killing more than 25% of the entire population.

The dreadful disease can sweep into a village or town without warning, and no-one, rich or poor, is safe from its ravages.

It’s not surprising that many people became morbidly obsessed with death and the way that plague could ambush the living at a moment’s notice.

It was in this climate that documents called Ars Moriendi, the ‘Art of Dying’, started to circulate. There were probably more than 300 different versions produced during the Middle Ages. In an age in which priests controlled every aspect of Christian life, the Ars Moriendi were self-help manuals for lay people. A modern equivalent title might be Dying for Dummies!

In times of plague you could not be confident that a priest would be present to hear your confession and help you to prepare for the end. Instead of passively accepting the ministrations of clerics and carers, the dying person was encouraged and exhorted to action, engagement, and preparation for faithful dying.

Over the years a standard format emerged. It started with ‘a commendation of death’. Then there were warnings to the dying person of the temptations they might confront and how these should be resisted. The dying Christ was portrayed as a model for dying well, and finally there were prayers – both for the dying person and those accompanying their journey.

Of course, our world is vastly different from the one in which the Ars Moriendi circulated. But perhaps we too are at risk of facing the dying process with passivity and despair. It’s not the absence of priests and clergy that is the problem. It’s more the dominance of the medics and hospital systems which can pressurise dying people into docility and hopelessness. Dying has become a medical event which is defined and managed by medics. We, the patients, are in danger of being passive and helpless recipients.

What would happen if we tried to translate the medieval art of dying into our world of technological medicine and care pathways for dying people? We have much to learn from the practical wisdom that helped Christian believers of the medieval period face the ending of their lives on earth. Here we will discover a way to practise faith, love, and hope as we commend our deaths, as well as our lives, into the hands of our loving God.

John Wyatt
John is Emeritus Professor of Ethics and Neonatal Paediatrics at University College London and a Senior Researcher at the Faraday Institute, Cambridge

Professor Wyatt will be speaking at our upcoming event, Dying Well, on Monday 15th October. More info here. His book on this topic, published by IVP, is now available for purchase.

Author

Prof. John Wyatt

Comments

  1. Thank you, John, for an amazingly vivid, interesting and helpful thought piece – this has become an increasingly difficult subject to address in our western technologically-driven culture of death prevention. I look forward to seeing you (and listening) again on the 15th!

    By Jeremy Clare - 5th October 2018
  2. Very valid and accurate observations within the article. So true. Morbidity will become a fearful and more concerning factor to individuals whenever major events occur within the world such as earthquakes, Tsunami’s. Etc. The ideal thinking is to Live your life each day as if it were to be your last!
    Interesting article to read. Thank You.

    By Rt Rev David Bennett - 5th October 2018
  3. Having studied medieval history (albeit long ago) and ordained for 15 yrs, I was surprised not to have heard of the Ars Moriendi. So I am grateful to have seen this. I was also surprised however that there wasn’t more specific mention/commendation of the work of hospices and its chaplains.

    By Revd Ashley Evans - 5th October 2018
  4. Thanks John. I found what you have said thought-provoking and helpful.

    Perhaps in our materialistic society we see the dying person as having no more to contribute and therefore having no value. The Christian view, as I understand it, is that God can work through all of us. Even as we die we have something to give.

    I have circulated a link to your piece to my follow members of the British Association of Christians in Psychology (BACiP).

    By John Steley - 5th October 2018
  5. I will regret missing the event in October, hope something will be published. A modern Ars Moriendi would be quite useful, I believe. And I quite liked the funny modern equivalent: “Dying for Dummies” could be quite a good title (though watch the copyright point…) (Or get them to publish! We do have a “Jesus for Dummies” in French which is truly excellent and very helpful indeed).
    Thanks for daring to talk on taboo subjects!

    By Martin Slabbekoorn - 5th October 2018
  6. Being involved with CCG’s in helping to get our Community hospital beds open after closure of 15months it is getting the NHS to see that every person is valued and is still a person and community member with family and friends who cannot make the 75 mile round trip to an acute hospital for someone who is dying. We need community hospitals for the dying.
    Thank you for raising this important subject, we all get there one day, to die well is our hope.

    By Rev. Jane Lucas - 5th October 2018
  7. Have we forgotten the wonderful life and minsitry of Cecily Saunders and the hospice movement. In the local hospices where i have been with more than a few dying people i am amazed and encouraged by the care shown to those in terminal illness. Mary Quenby

    By mary quenby - 5th October 2018
  8. Yes! We are dominated by the medical system which pressurises us to stay alive, regardless of our quality of life and not understanding the equanimity with which we Christians can face the fact of death (if not the process!).

    By Peter Mitchell - 5th October 2018
  9. Thank you for this professor. You are so right. Not only do the medics manage our death, they also think they know best. Having fought against them for years over my sister-in – law’s right to be cared for by those who love her in a warm, safe and secure environment free from stress even at the end, I am sure we all need to pay more attention to what it actually means to die well and what it doesn’t mean! Maybe a new Ars Moriendi is needed for society as a whole and especially as part of every medic’s training.

    By Sue W - 6th October 2018
  10. I hope this October event will be published, recorded or circulated for some of us oldies who are not able to get there !

    By Ann Warren - 6th October 2018
    • Hi Ann,

      The event will be live-streamed on Facebook on the evening, and Prof. Wyatt also has a book out which is a much fuller version of the talk he will be giving on the night! You can find a link to buy that at the bottom of the piece 🙂

      Thanks
      Nell

      By Nell Goddard - 8th October 2018
  11. I appreciated the article!
    Just to say when I clicked on the link to Prof Wyatts book it said that it was out of print! Hopefully there will be some more soon?
    Thanks

    By Bernadette Birtwhistle - 9th October 2018

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