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?Page 30
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.Page 33
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.