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