In this post, I will quote passages in Dr. Dugdale’s text that I find especially discussion worthy, pose questions about those passages, and share some of my thoughts. I invite you to reply in the “comment” box below, responding to what I or others have posted, or to any part of Dr. Dugdale’s book that we have read together this week.
Although the plague regarded no person as exempt, some of the wealthy did manage to escape–often to private villas outside urban centers.Page 18
They went out for strolls carrying flowers or sweet-smelling herbs, which they held up to their noses.Page 19
Everywhere the people of Florence looked, they saw death.Page 19
I think Dr. Dugdale wrote her descriptions of bubonic plague in this chapter before 2020. So she probably didn’t intend any comparison to our present “plague.” But I can’t read this without making that comparison. More specifically, I find telling comparisons between her descriptions of plague-struck Florence in the mid 1300s and New York City during the height of our outbreak last Spring.
Dr. Dugdale’s accounts of the escape from Florence by the wealthy, and the use of flowers and herbs to prevent contagion remind me of similar flights from New York, and our use of masks and sanitizers. I find her remark about the omnipresence of death more telling. We have been made increasingly aware of deaths in New York. You probably heard about the mass burials at Hart Island, and COVID-19 death tolls continue to be reported daily. But the great majority of people haven’t seen those corpses. We have remained segregated from actual death in a way that is markedly different from just about any place or time in the pre-modern world, let alone plague-ridden Florence.
No one gathered at the deathbed. No one waited outside the home to shoulder the coffin in a funeral march.Page 20
Again, in ways similar to plague-struck Florence in the 1300’s, many of the familiar practices attending our experience of death have been interrupted. Visitors to hospitals have been restricted; funeral rites have been delayed. But our practices are different. They take place within specialized institutions and those present are usually a tighter community of family and friends. What do we think of those differences? Are some of our contemporary practices attending death and dying better that those of medieval Florence? Are some worse? Both? Neither?
A central premise was that in order to die well, you had to live well. Part of living well meant anticipating and preparing for death within the context of your community over the course of a lifetime.Page 21
Dr. Dugdale says this about the ars moriendi books that “began to develop throughout the 1400s.” The assertion that “in order to die well, you have to live well” recurs frequently in this book and headlines the back cover. Of course, “dying well” must refer to the quality of the end of one’s life. Dr. Dugdale isn’t talking about what happens to a person after death, or the presence of supernatural grace at the moment of death. When she talks about “dying well,” she is talking about how we conclude the task of living. Her point, following the ars moriendi, seems to be that, in order to conclude our lives well we must live well now, and part of living well now means living with a view to that conclusion. We will have further opportunities in our reading of this book to think about this and discuss it, but Dr. Dugdale invites us to formulate some initial thoughts as we read this first chapter. If you would like to share some of those, please feel free.
Dr. Dugdale also speaks of “accepting and preparing for death in the context of your community.” What does it mean to accept death? What are some specific ways that we prepare for death in the context of our communities? In my Dominican community, we pray daily and by name for our deceased brothers on the anniversary of their deaths.
Over the centuries, the original ars moriendi grew into a sizable literary genre. It shaped practices related to living and dying in the West for more that four hundred years, succumbing only to the arrival of an early twentieth-century society fixated on ushering in a modern age. . . . Not only did we stop thinking about how to die well; our very culture became inhospitable to the art of dying.Page 21
Dr. Dugdale makes this assertion toward the end of this first chapter. She will surely expand on this in later chapters, explaining how she thinks our culture has become inhospitable to the art of dying. Again, we will have further opportunities to consider this, but we are invited to start thinking about this now. I suggest we try to think of specific examples of inhospitable practices in our culture. One example that occurs to me is the way we speak about death: our use of vague expressions like “passing away,” or our avoidance of the subject all together.
We do not die well, and conveyor-belt medicine will continue to carry us to bad deaths unless we hit “pause” in the system. Changing the way we die takes work.Page 22
I think Dr. Dugdale invites us to consider changes in how we think and act as individuals, families, and communities. She also wants us to consider changes to our health care system. What could it mean to “hit ‘pause’ in the system”? It’s clear that Dr. Dugdale isn’t thinking of minor alterations or current best practices. She’s calling for real, hard change.