Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 2, Pages 25-34

She declined to discuss it. In her mind, the question she faced was whether she should choose to live a few days longer.

Page 27

What questions should have been in Ms. Capella’s mind? Dr. Dugdale goes on to say that “she could not imagine her own death.” She seems to imply that Ms. Capella should have thought of what her resuscitation would involve and how it would affect her and those around her. Instead, she only thought of her death “abstractly, in its relationship to money spent on hearing aids.” The abstract way Ms. Capella’s thought about her death seems also to be related to time. She imagines her death as an event that could happen sooner or later, and she chooses later. She doesn’t seem to imagine what it will be like for her and for others.

What are the questions we face at the end of life? Too often, I think, we ask the wrong questions. And by “we,” I am thinking particularly of Christians. Christians very often want to be “pro life.” We hold in our minds the Biblical injunction to “Choose life” (Joshua 30:19) and are wary of any choice that leads to hastening death, lest it be tantamount to suicide or euthanasia. And we are right to think that way when the questions we face are about preserving life or inflicting death. We always want to preserve life and never want to inflict death. But we can’t preserve our mortal lives forever and, as Christians, we shouldn’t want to. The time may come when the life-preserving measures that are possible may no longer be reasonable. The questions we face then are not about life or death. They are about the life-preserving measures that are available to us. Dr. Dugdale suggests, and I think she is right, that the question Ms. Capella faced should not have been “whether she should choose to live a few days longer.” It should have been, “whether, if her heart were to stop, cardiopulmonary resuscitation would be reasonable.”

Does comfortable modern Western life tempt us to see ourselves as immortal? If the answer is yes, which I suppose to be the case for many of us, we too need a reminder of our humanity. But what sort of prompts will suffice?

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Dr. Dugdale proceeds to recount ways in which reminders of human mortality were present in ancient and medieval Western cultures. Some of that surely remains in modern Western culture, especially in modern Christian culture. We read, speak, and hear about the death of Jesus. The centrality of Jesus’ death is reinforced by the Eucharist, by funeral liturgies, and by the omnipresent crucifix. But perhaps these reminders are too often relegated to our churches and our more-or-less frequent attendance to them.

What prompts would help us remember our human morality outside of church, in our families and communities? My own community is not like most. Nor is it perfect. It is mine, however, and sharing some of the ways the Dominican friars in my community remind ourselves of finitude might be helpful. For one thing, we have crucifixes and images of Jesus and the saints (especially Dominican saints) in just about every room and hallway. In some rooms, including my own, we also have relics. Moreover, when a friar in our province dies, all living friars are required to offer “suffrages” for him by celebrating at least one Mass. In my community, we also pray daily for all deceased friars in the U.S. Dominican provinces on the anniversaries on their deaths. As we gather before our communal meal, name each friar and the year when he died, recite Psalm 130, and pray that “through our loving prayers they may receive the forgiveness they have always desired.”

The Council of Constance was convened and met from 1414 to 1418 . . . At the top of the list? How to prepare well for death.

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Back in Chapter 1, Dr. Dugdale said, “This is not a religious book. It is however, a book on the wisdom of dying well derived from centuries of Western Judeo-Christian cultural practices. And for that reason, it does not avoid the influences of Judaism and Christianity on habits of dying in the West” (Page 22). The influence of the medieval Catholic Christian Ars Moriendi is clearly a prominent part of the “forgotten wisdom” Dr. Dugdale want to “revive” (see the book’s subtitle). Our reading of this book need not necessarily be religious either. But it is being organized by a Catholic priest and I suspect Catholic Christian concerns are of vital importance to many of us. So we might ask: What is our Church (and our churches) doing to help us prepare well for death? This was a priority 600 years ago. Is it a priority now? Should it be? If so, how should the Church (and the churches) go about doing it?

Thank you for your comments.

10 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 2, Pages 25-34”

  1. Dr. Dugdale’s depiction of Mrs. Capella and her desire for resuscitation and advanced life support highlights for me society’s in unacceptance of death and aging. Some would argue that many terminal illnesses of the 50s and 60s like breast cancer, leukemia, lung cancer, AIDS are now almost chronic diseases. With current scientific advancements we could all be placed on life support for extended periods awaiting cures for what ails us. As Dr D said “starving off death with technology.” Somehow this takes God out of the equation. I agree we need to think what life preserving methods are reasonable.for us and those we love. We must accept we are not in control of our deaths. What does our faith do to help us accept our mortality? I think we’re taught that in living a good life we will gain union with God. When I was growing up in the 50’s death never seemed far away. It was part of our consciousness. I went to a parochial grammar school where the nuns took us as a class to say the rosary in the funeral home of any family member who died. We were not shielded from death. During the Cold War we would have air raid drills and although the grades 1-4 were coed, we were separated for the drill with the boys going to the basement and the girls to the auditorium because we were told if there was a bomber we had to “save” the boys. Now what prompts and helps me remember my own mortality? I would say mass, prayers for the deceased and I keep memorial cards filed by month so every month I can remember and pray for all those who passed away. I have also adopted the Jewish tradition of lighting a 24hr candle on the anniversary of the death of loved ones. What is the Church doing to help us prepare for death? I think and hope that the church had begun to realizes how important and vital the care and ministry to the sick and dying is for the patient, their family and their caregivers. As a nurse I have seen this wasn’t always the case. And hospital ministry was often not well supported by local parishes. I am so grateful to Health Care Ministry and the work they do is inspirational.

  2. For those interested in delving further into the medieval practices, a book (cited by Dr. Dugdale) I read a few years ago is very helpful: Allen Verhey’s The Christian Art of Dying. You can see the very woodcuts Dr. D shows much bigger (even in the paperback).

  3. Thank you all for these really excellent comments! All have them have prompted me to new thinking. Jacqueline’s also prompted me to make my “Reflections” more accessible on this website. You can now access those from the site’s main menu if you are interested.

  4. It is said that we humans are the only sentient beings to know that we will die. I am not so sure this is true, but it does point to the fact that each of us has a consciousness, a knowledge that I am a human being, separate from others with a mind that can cross time and place and a will to choose what i want to do. Yet so few of us ever think about the fact, the sure knowledge that we/I will die. That eventuality can seem so far away as to be unimaginable. And modern medicine, not to mention the rise of funeral homes to take care of our dead, has made death almost invisible. So it’s no wonder that the woman in this section of the reading cannot imagine her end of days fully enough to decide how to die. Even if we have written directives about end-of-life treatments, we file them away and no longer think about them. That day will come, but not now! But I think that the COVID epidemic, especially here in New York City, has made death, maybe even MY death, much more present to me. Sirens day and night, hospital tents in the park, refrigerator trucks outside hospitals, health care workers exhausted after their shifts, and that daily chart of ever-rising virus cases across the country: all of these have made me think about death much more often. But why should it take an epidemic of such deadly proportions to make us plan for our own exit? The “ars moriendi” that Dr. Dugdale’s book discusses developed during the bubonic plague that wiped out more than half of the world’s population. Is COVID-19 OUR bubonic plague? Should we need an epidemic to make us remember that we too are mortal?

  5. I am reminded of my personal mortality every day. Family members die, people who I know die, friends die, celebrities die, and so on. The Gospel reminds us that we all will return to dust. We celebrate Ash Wednesday and are reminded of our finitude. For me, dying well is to develop enough Faith so as not to fear death too much and to Trust in God. At least that is my Hope. That God loves us. Faith/Hope/Love. I still have a very LONG way to go. I like to think of My Finitude as finally being in line for the scariest roller coaster ride ever. I was never a fan but would always seem to get dragged into trying it out. At least once. So I am in line now (age 62 yo). The end of the line keeps getting closer and soon I will be getting on the roller coaster. Hopefully not the first car. I would like to have all my affairs in order so as not to burden my family. I don’t need a lot of people around me or supporting me. I would like to say my goodbyes to my loved ones. No extraordinary measures. Aren’t we heading to a better life? An eternal life? The waiting is AWAYS the worst part. With God’s grace, the ride will be anti-climatic. I will get off and say it wasn’t too bad. And I will then see God’s Face. My “beatific vision”.

  6. It struck me that Ms. Capella believed that she was “in control” of her death….in the end, after all, the final day and hour is not ours to choose. Choosing life…is very Christian/Catholic….whether it’s cardio or chemo /immunol. ….all efforts….no matter the cost monetarily or more importantly, emotionally, to the person/patient and the family/friends involved. What is reasonable?? is a by pass??for an elder parent… or an implant of an LVAD…(jury still out on that one, in my pinion) Yet, nevertheless, we do choose life….sometimes not thinking through the consequences of the choice…versus inaction… Dr Dugdale’s enumeration of daily preparation is quite informative….some of us try, in our own ways, to at the very least, say our “night prayers” as we were taught, if lukcy enough,
    by our mom and dad, and reinforced by parochial education..including the act of contrition…as we mature…it takes on more meaning…we may carry our “list of persons to be remembered” in our memory section of our brains…deeply planted…sometimes update..but always there! Some of us and/or family have “masses offered” on the anniversary of the death or birth or both of our loved ones..Likewise, we might plan a cemetey visit on certain days of the year, e.g. mother’s day, or in my family, my sisters and I share(d) the same birthday month….so it was an occasion to visit, pray, tal, laugh, shed a tear, and then have a “bite to eat”…pre covid of course…this year we could not go!! As one of my younger nephews said…”what a family, you spend your birthday lunch together, after the visit to Calvary!! (true!) and we look(ed ) forward to it, too. In Lent, we recall the older “remember man, thou are dust and unto dust you shall return”….like the song “all we are is dust in the wind”…or the soap opera…”like sand in an hour glass…so goes the days of our lives”
    …for some reason, the newer edition our children hear “repent and do good, change your life” or something to that effect…while service oriented and wonderful…somehow to me,at least, it does not get to the depth of “dust you shall return”…..particularly today in the age of cremation acceptance, particularly with the costs of burials and people living longer and running out of material goods.. Today, with COVID and the “right out there” photos of refrigerated trucks, Potters Field, Bard Island…and so forth….it is not so easy to
    “hide” from death …..In college, I was able to choose an elective “on death and dying” around the time Dr Kubla Ross’s book came out…and the five stages of grief were explained…the stages of dying enumerated…simultaneously with the death of my 59 year old dad. …”taken” while I was out for a few hours with a friend at a movie…coming home to my “mom” almost “solidified” in stone by grief and shock….massive coronary, 911, CPR, death…of course, this was in the 70s and cardio treatment had not” advanced”, pardon the word,to where it currently is…In my opinion, education would be a great help….before the time comes…It’s not a priority today, so far as I know,
    and it would be a welcome addition to adult and young adult “growth” and “learning”. I read some of the comments and I did not know
    that there was so much info available….of course, one has to be “willing” to “think” about it…As a former practicing professional, I had many clients tell me “don’t care what happens when I’m gone”…..the mere thought of “planning” or “estate planning” etc. preburial, etc.
    was way beyond anything they were interested in delving into. Some senior centers (pre covid) …..offer some “discussion”…although I must say it was focused on putting the powers of attorney/and advance directives into place…which surely are helpful and necessary and useful, but the conversation it opens must be one that an individual or group is “ready for”…..The good death is really about the good life…..as previously commented on…..faith, hope, charity, service, meditation and contemplative prayer and so forth.

  7. Preserving life past the time when it is reasonable to do so is a wish many have in the time of their own impending death and sometimes even more so, when standing by watching the death of a loved one. We all want those we love the most to be available to us at all times, and I believe it is human to want to see them in body as well as spirit. It is because of this human need, that Dr. Dugdale’s message is so important. We must grapple with finitude in our own lives, and often even before we face our own end, we may have to face the end of the lives of those we love. “Life is not ended, but changed” is more than a consoling message at funerals, it is a wake up call for each of us to know that every human will change. We will face our mortal end, as will our loved ones. But there is life past the loss of our bodies. Nature provides many examples of this…the loss of leaves on trees feels final and feels like the death of the tree. But in the spring, new tender green leaves return. The tree’s life has been changed, but it is not ended. Even the smallest sliver of natural world is a metaphor for our own journey, and if we keep our senses open and alert, we can be reminded of the cycle of life daily.

  8. Preserving life past the time when it is reasonable to do so is a wish many have in the time of their own impending death and sometimes even more so, when standing by watching the death of a loved one. We all want those we love the most to be available to us at all times, and I believe it is human to want to see them in body as well as spirit. It is because of this human need, that Dr. Dugdale’s message is so important. We must grapple with finitude in our own lives, and often even before we face our own end, we may have to face the end of the lives of those we love. “Life is not ended, but changed” is more than a consoling message at funerals, it is a wake up call for each of us to know that every human will change. We will face our mortal end, as will our loved ones. But there is life past the loss of our bodies. Nature provides many examples of this…the loss of leaves on trees feels final and feels like the death of the tree. But in the spring, new tender green leaves return. The tree’s life has been changed, but it is not ended. Even the smallest sliver of natural world is a metaphor for our own journey, and if we keep our senses open and alert, we can be reminded of the cycle of life daily.

  9. Perhaps it is not emphasized because of our low cultural comfort level with death, but I think that if our Church is adequately preparing us for Christian life, those same lessons would apply to a “good death.” Pastorally, I think there is room to be more explicit in encouraging us all to understand the nature of the end of life. It is sad to me that many people who want “everything done” (not necessarily knowing what that is), do so in the name of faith, as Dr Dugdale says. And we will naturally avoid wrestling with something we haven’t spent much time preparing for.

    So, I really appreciate Fr. Jonah’s reflection on how considering death is a part of his daily life. This to me, at first, feels like a relatively lower priority as someone who still struggles to make frequent prayer a part of daily life. But maybe the two goals: prayer & preparing for death, should not seem so different to me. They are closely related, in that both relate to understanding my standing before God. It’s not so much a priority shift that is needed then, as it is having our churches and communities be more open and comfortable in helping us to recognize that preparing for death is already a part of our existing spiritual priorities, and just perhaps needs a little more dedicated time.

  10. I would like to add that when we pray our night prayers, we typically include an examination of conscience. This is intended as an opportunity to make a penitential act before retiring in the event that we do not wake. Compline includes the phrases “may the all-powerful and merciful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death” and “may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace” which also remind us about death and the departed.

    What does the Church do to prepare us for dying well? Unless you have been a caregiver or you are seriously ill yourself, you may not realize that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers many helpful resources on their website concerning end of life issues. Unless you are tasked with planning a funeral/burial, you probably haven’t given much thought to the support that your parish provides. You might not even pay attention to the daily mass intentions–many of which are offered for the deceased–or the liturgical calendar full of solemnities, memorials and feast days which celebrate our saints. You might not regularly appreciate how the mass is actually a re-creation of Christ’s passion. Sometimes, we simply don’t notice what we don’t seek.

    In addition to helping souls after death, a Catholic priest can visit you when you are gravely ill or dying to administer three sacraments (Confession/Penance, Holy Communion/Viaticum and Anointing of the Sick–Formerly Extreme Unction or Last Rights). In some cases, the priests can even perform emergency Baptisms and Confirmations. In a few short minutes, you can prepare your soul for eternal salvation. If you are caring for a Catholic patient, please consider this course of action prior to heavy sedation or intubation (assuming, of course, that you have the luxury of the time to do so). This is the daily service of the DFHCMNY.

    That all said, I would like to comment on how my church prepares us for death. The homilies, programs, events, pastor letters and other offerings actually feature an underlying theme of living a good Christian life. We are encouraged to make straight our path, love one another and avail ourselves to God’s graces. It is not always easy, because the rules are not bent and the truth is not sugar-coated. But the church provides resources to guide and encourage us as we make the tough choices and bear our crosses (including accessible pastoral support, frequent confessional hours, educational opportunities, community outreach, diverse ministries/social groups and coming soon…a perpetual adoration chapel). We are made very aware that if we are not a friend to God in this life, we will not likely be a friend to God in the afterlife. Eternity is a long time compared to our earthly lives. Therefore, we should be generous in dedicating our time in this life for contemplative prayer, charity and faith formation. In that way, the church helps us to live well and foster an open relationship with God so that we may also merit the opportunity to die well.

    One of my favorite “church resources” is available on this very website. I strongly encourage everyone to read Father Jonah’s brilliant past reflections on faith, healthcare and ethics. They are available by clicking the arrows on the bottom of this webpage, and they contain a treasure of thoughtful insights on this topic.

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