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Imagining Death -- and Dying Well

A scriptural imagination will shape our view of death through remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus

The Ars Moriendi tradition formed the imagination of the Christian community for centuries, and it still does. Christians frequently go limping between the two imaginations which govern Ars Moriendi and medicalized death. When a loved one is sick—but not quite dead—we look to medicine as the faithful savior. And then when a loved one dies, we sometimes mouth Platonic platitudes as if they provided genuine comfort.

We need a new imagination con-cerning death, a biblical imagination that shapes how we see death and dying. It agrees with the instruction of Ars Moriendi to remember Jesus. But a biblical imagination begins with the story of his resurrection and with a celebration of embodied and communal life, not with commendation of death.

The story of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope for our own is fundamental to our comfort and our courage while we are dying, to our compassion in keeping company with the dying, to our patience and our hope. The memory and hope of resurrection can form an imagination in which death is neither the great enemy to be defeated by the greater powers of medicine (as in medicalization) nor the trustworthy friend that liberates us from the body and its “carnal attachments” (as in Ars Moriendi), but as the enemy already defeated and to be defeated by the great power and love of God.

The memory and hope of resurrection also provides a remedy for the dualism of much of the Ars Moriendi literature and the problems that attend that dualism. The resurrection calls for attention to a cosmic hope that resists a narrow vision of an otherworldly hope reduced to the soul’s eternal bliss. Because that future is still sadly “not yet,” lament is called for; but because that future is already established by God, and because both the living and the dead have some mysterious foretaste of it, we need not fear death. The resurrection calls for attention to the self as carnal—embodied and communal—and it can form our care for the dying to be attentive to (rather than dismissive of) the carnal attachments of those with whom we keep company.

The death of Jesus was hardly what we think of when we think of dying well. He died young and violently, the victim of a judicial murder. He died—according to the Gospel of Mark, at least—abandoned by friends and followers. He died an excruciatingly painful death. Even so, the story of Jesus is the story Christians remember, the story that is determinative for our Christian imagination and discernment, the story that provides the paradigm for faithful living and dying. The words from the cross join lament and confidence in God; they enact forgiveness of enemies and make provision for the care for family and friends; they attend to the embodied and communal (the carnal) needs and comforts of the dying; and they attend to God as the one who can be trusted and into whose hands we can let ourselves go. They can form and re-form the virtues for dying well that were so important to Ars Moriendi. The story of Jesus provides, I think, a corrective both to the Ars Moriendi tradition and to the medicalization of dying.

Each of these three—medicalization, the Ars Moriendi, and the faithful dying and caring for the dying that I have briefly sketched, is governed by a particular imagination. Medicalization imagines that death is the great enemy to be defeated by the greater powers of medicine. That imagination has shaped both medicine and our culture, both our ways of dying and our ways of caring for the dying. The Ars Moriendi of the 15th century imagined that death is a friend to be welcomed, a friend who liberates us from our bodies and ushers our souls into eternal bliss. It insists on remembering Jesus, but its imagination is deeply flawed by its dualistic and Platonic assumptions. We need a third imagination: an imagination formed and re-formed in memory of Jesus, whose story is told in Scripture. We need to remember that God won a great victory over death when God raised Jesus from the dead. We need to allow that victory to form an imagination that acknowledges that death is an enemy, to be sure, but an enemy that has been already—and will in the end be completely—defeated by the greater power of God, by a love that is stronger than death.

 

Allen Verhey explores this topic in more depth in his book The Christian Art of Dying: Learning from Jesus (Eerdmans, 2011).