In the end, these virtues–patience, hope, humility, faith, and “letting go”–lead to flourishing through life as through death. In reflecting on the themes of this book, the habit of letting go makes possible the acknowledgement of human finitude and the habit of humility makes space for community–recognizing finitude and embracing community being the the foundational elements of an art of dying. Exercising faith together with hope helps to mitigate fear of death, suggests answers to our deepest existential anxieties, and promotes the cultivation of peace. And nearly all of us could do with more patience.Pages 206-207
I love how this book seeks to recover the late-medieval ars moriendi tradition and adapt it for our contemporary Western society. There is surely much we can do as a society to acknowledge our morality and help each other prepare to die more peacefully and grieve more wholesomely. Since this is not a religious book, Dr. Dugdale emphasizes the ars moriendi virtues that are less directly religious. The “themes of this book” are predominantly “the acknowledgement of human finitude” and “embracing community.” Dr. Dugdale identifies the virtues of humility and “letting go” as corresponding to these themes. She also gives much complimentary attention to religious traditions. But while she recognizes the importance of the virtues of faith and hope, they correspond less to the themes of her book.
I do not intend that as a criticism. Dr. Dugdale’s primary themes and conclusions are appropriate to the kind of book that she wrote, which, as I said, I love. As a Catholic priest, however, I naturally approach this subject from the perspective of Catholic Christian religion. So I would emphasize the virtues of faith and hope. To me, the starting points in the consideration of human death are the reality of God, in whom we believe, and the promises of God, in whom we hope. The virtues of patience, humility, and generosity are necessary for Christian living and dying. But faith, hope, and love come first.
During the days immediately following Grandma’s death, I found myself wishing that I could clothe myself in traditional mourning attire so that I didn’t have to explain to colleagues and strangers the reason for my sadness. I wished I didn’t have to go to the office or take care of patients. In my distress, the significance of mourning rituals became all the more real to me, and I yearned for the freedom that such practices provide. But modern life–and especially the practice of modern medicine–rarely makes space for grief.Page 211
Why can’t our society fix this? Maternity leave and paternity leave are common in the modern workplace. Why don’t we give time off work for bereavement? We have support groups for bereavement. Shouldn’t we give working people time to attend such groups, or to grieve in their churches, synagogues, or mosques, or by spending time alone or with family? It seems to me that our society has progressed in a positive way in the recognition of our human need to grieve. Giving working people time to grieve would seem to be a logical next step it that progression. It might also be a healthy way for our society to acknowledge the reality of human death and the consequences it has for the living.
If the ars moriendi tradition made much of last words, it was the Methodists who championed them. Methodism arose in the eighteenth century as a revival movement within the Church of England. Its followers believed firmly that life is a rehearsal for death–living well is necessary for dying well–and the hour of death provided the opportunity to confirm the authenticity of belief. As the scholar Shai Lavi puts it, “Dying was not merely another event in the life of the Methodist; it was the culminating moment through which the entirety of life could be understood.”Page 214
I am reminded of the “seven last words” of Jesus. The words Jesus spoke before his death on the cross are treasured by Christians and are often a special object of devotion on Good Friday. If “life is a rehearsal for death,” we should practice saying things like, “father, forgive them” and “into your hands Lord I commend my spirit.” Of course we rehearse for death in that way when we say the Lord’s Prayer. We also do that in the Liturgy of the Hours, especially Compline, in which we recite (or chant) the words “into your hands Lord I comment my spirit” every night.
The art of dying is really the art of living . . . As we walk together toward the fear and the sadness, as we sit low to grieve our own dying or the death of others, we may find ourselves transformed in the process. The transformation is not from sickness to health or from death to life. Rather, it is the change that comes from experiencing the profound. We grow wiser, more whole. We discover calm in turmoil, light in shadow, beauty in decay.Pages 215-216
If there is a thesis statement for this book, this is probably it: “The art of dying is really the art of living.” This gets stated in different ways throughout the book and “Why Dying Well Requires Living Well” is written in oversize type on the back cover. One thing these statements surely mean is that, in order to die well, one must prepare for death throughout one’s life. Such preparation includes clear-eyed understanding of the certainty of one’s mortality and of the circumstances that may be part of the dying process. It also includes advance decision making and communication about maters related to one’s inevitable death. Most importantly, perhaps, preparing for death involves cultivating virtues that will enable one to choose well, suffer graciously, and be at peace with God and neighbors when the time comes.
Dr. Dugdale’s closing words about transformation give us another way to understand her identification between living well and dying well. It isn’t just that, in order to die well, we must live well. It is also true that, in order to live well, we must encounter death in a meaningful way. By anticipating and preparing for our own deaths and by accompanying others in their dying and our grief, we can be transformed, made able to live well. As Christians, we do this by accompanying Jesus in his Passion, grieving his suffering and our sins, and giving thanks for his self-giving love. In Jesus, we also see the life beyond death that is his in glory and ours in hope. But accompanying Jesus can never be about him alone because he is not alone. We con only live well as Christians by accompanying our neighbors also, those “least” brothers and sisters of Jesus (see Matthew 25:40) in whose mortal flesh the dying of Jesus is manifested to those who walk by faith (see 2 Corinthians 4-5). By sharing in Christ’s death, and the deaths of his “least brethren,” we share in Christ’s life, both now and forever.