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Rewriting medieval wisdom for death in the modern age

Illustration of a family talking about death and end of life issues

All images courtesy of the Art of Dying Well,

When you are getting married, you’ll find thousands of articles online about planning the perfect wedding. If you’re expecting a baby, there are shelves upon shelves of parenting advice books. But what resources are there to help people facing life’s final milestone – death?

This question prompted the Catholic Church of England and Wales to breathe new life into a medieval text called Ars Moriendi. Written in the Middle Ages, the book was a guide to a ‘good death’, a philosophy at the heart of the Church’s project on The Art of Dying Well. It offers advice and information for anyone facing the end of life, or looking after a loved one in their final days.

A new millennium, a new art

“The original document was an illustrated manuscript which told a story through art and provided people with practical advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death,” explains Nina Mattiello Azadeh of the Art of Dying Well team.

“Even though centuries have passed since the original Ars Moriendi was written, life and death still affect each and every one of us today,” she says.

“The ‘art’ of dealing with death and dying lies in knowing that you are not alone in death, you can be accompanied on this journey. With more people dying in hospitals, many of the lessons of Ars Moriendi were lost or at least seemed less relevant as we handed our deaths over to experts.

“Modern medicine might have alleviated pain and prolonged the end of life,” she continues, “but ultimately we all must face death.”

Although death means different things to us all, the website brings together what it describes as a “community of accompaniment” that it hopes will bring comfort to those making their final journey.

The Art of Dying Well provides a treasury of resources to help those dealing with issues around death and dying. Although based in the Catholic tradition, the aim is for the website to provide information of value for anyone regardless of their belief, from real-life testimonies of people facing the end of their lives, to advice and information from palliative care experts.

It explores what a ‘good death’ means when you don’t have long to live and making the most of the time that you have left. There are guidelines, too, for Catholics and other people with metaphysical questions, on how their faith or spirituality can help them prepare for death.

You can find resources focusing on remembering death to fully embrace life, praying for and remembering the dead, and sharing a deeper understanding of positive approaches to death and the art of dying well.

Illustration of a young man sitting at his dying father's bedside

The site isn’t just for those facing their own death, but for those who are caring for them too.

“An important aspect of the work of The Art of Dying Well is the promotion of holistic care for the dying and for those who care for them,” says Nina. Holistic care involves focusing on the person as a whole and taking into account all their needs, whether medical, emotional or spiritual.

“This holistic care is not necessarily specific to a priest or palliative care consultant; we can all be attentive to the practical and spiritual needs of those around us, especially when death is imminent.”

Those spiritual needs don’t just have to be in the context of organised religion either. It could be wider questions about the meaning of life or what happens after death that patients need to explore as they approach death.

Dr Liz Toy, an Oncologist from Exeter, says: “Spiritual pain is often quite deeply buried by either the patient or the family – and maybe not even recognised as such.”

“That means that the spiritual needs of an individual can often be hard to discover,” explains Nina. “The website has a complete section on holistic care for dying people,which includes advice on questioning and communicating these ‘hidden’ spiritual issues, which often involves encouraging conversations and attentively listening to the sick or dying person.”

Talking about death

In addition to practical, emotional and spiritual advice, the Art of Dying Well aims to get people talking about death and embracing the importance of enjoying life.

“We all need to do whatever we can to help break open the taboo of simply mentioning the word ‘death’,” says the team at Art of Dying Well. “We tend to use phrases such as ‘passed away’, ‘gone to Heaven’ and ‘no longer with us’ to avoid the use of the ‘D-word’.

“With more deaths in homes and hospitals, it could be the case that someone will not have experienced a death directly or seen a dead body. However, we believe that in accepting death and making it a friend in our lives, we will have a better relationship with it, which will ultimately lead to better living.”

Adrian Forsey, a funeral director based in south west England, talked to the Art of Dying Well about the importance of talking about and accepting death:

“We get to see how short life is, that it can be taken away at any stage, and that you really have got to concentrate and enjoy what’s around you each and every day,” he says.

What does he believe is important? “Saying to the ones you love that you do love them, saying what needs to be said while you’re still here, and smelling the roses as you go.”

Listen to Adrian’s thoughts in full in the video below:

Visit the The Art of Dying Well website to find out more about end of life issues and see how the Catholic Church is supporting anyone affected by death, dying and bereavement.

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