I was fourteen when I saw my first dead body. As I peered over the edge of my grandmother’s casket, I stared at the woman I had loved so dearly. She appeared just as she had always looked. Of course, this sterile, styled result was the work of a skilled embalmer. I hadn’t been with her in her final days, witnessed her final breath, or held her hand as it grew cold and rigid. While seeing her unanimated body was eerie, her death was not an event for me, nor was it a memory—it was simply a fact. All evidence had been wiped clean and painted over with foundation and lipstick.

Such a death is quite common. As families grow smaller or move far apart, fewer and fewer are surrounded by many, or any, loved ones as their last moments unfold. In countries like Japan, where nearly 30 percent of the population is over the age of sixty-five and birth rates continue to slide, entire industries are blossoming to address the crisis of dying alone. A Tokyo think tank estimates that more than 30,000 people nationwide meet this dismal fate, maggots finding them some months before neighbors or authorities.

Yet, however typical, these facts are undeniably tragic. While no one can literally accompany us through death’s door, few of us wish to be lonely as death approaches. There is something intuitively unappealing—even terrifying—about the idea of dying with no one near to comfort, accompany, or (minimally) to even know of it.

Shared Sorrow

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Fear is certainly a natural passion, but it becomes dangerous when it threatens our reason—driving us away from doing what we ought. Josef Pieper writes that death is the “ultimate injury, the deepest injury.” The thought of being disembodied and separated from the presence of one’s family and friends therefore causes anxiety, if not agony. This is why Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas claim that the greatest acts of courage, the virtue that preserves reason from the affront of fear, occur as man faces the greatest threat to his bodily integrity, death. 

Thus, the approach and thought of death breeds dread and grief, even when the individual anticipates great good in the life to come. To fail to feel fear upon the threat of injury is an uncharacteristic, super-human capacity. Courage enables man to resist when facing great evils, allowing him to pursue the higher goods at stake. But exercising courage does not mean the erasure of fear.

Our visceral fear and sadness at the mere mention of death reflects this fact. Yet sorrow itself is a burden that can be shared. Aquinas describes sorrow as a phenomenon that “has a depressing effect, it is like a weight whereof we strive to unburden ourselves.” When other persons take up the yoke of our sorrow, its oppressive sway is lessened—“the load of sorrow becomes lighter for him: something like what occurs in the carrying of bodily burdens.” Similarly, “when a man’s friends condole with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure,” and thus Aquinas concludes that our sorrows can become “mitigated by a sympathizing friend.”

Those who meet death in isolation are more threatened by the burden of sorrow than those who die in the embrace of loving community. If one cares even a little bit about “final perseverance,” to fail to attend to one’s friends and family as they undergo an onslaught of fears, pains, sorrows, and spiritual temptations might have disastrous effects.

In spite of this, it seems that the death of the social animal is slipping. One has only to recall the COVID-19 pandemic to realize that closeness to family or community as one lies dying was easily written off (by all, regardless of religion or party) as a low priority, a risk, even antithetical to “public health.”

Erasing Death

We live in an age when many refuse to confront the reality of death.  Gone are the days of funerals; enter those of the celebration of life. (Many today are forgoing any commemorative events at all.) Forget the casket; just bring in a framed photograph. Don’t say “died”; instead say “passed away,” “passed on,” or just “passed.” While death reaps liberally amid modern war, a pandemic, and surging suicide and fentanyl crises, we close our eyes, plant a sad-faced emoji, or scroll on, preferring to think very little about our own inevitable end.

A much different experience of death, one I have encountered only through the imaginative lens of literature, is found in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, the epic tale of the titular Norwegian woman’s life in the fourteenth century. The series presents a vivid picture of life in medieval Europe, where life, death, temptation, and redemption feature prominently. Much can be said about any one of these themes in the text, but the way death occurs as Kristin grows up stands out to me. 

The death of Kristin’s father, Lavrans, is a public ceremony. As his health begins a rapid decline, a prayerful vigil commences. The surrounding townsfolk are fascinated by witnessing the end of the life of a man who is noble (both in title and in spirit), just, and deeply holy.

Lavrans’s daughters (that is, “datters”), friends, and priest pay him repeated visits as his health declines, keeping company with him and preparing him with accounts of the saints who experienced “the trials of fiery purgatory, and the salvation of heaven.” But one senses that those who gather around his sickbed are getting more than they give. Although it pains her, Kristin muses that her father appears as eager for death as he once was for battle, approaching death “as if it were a test of manhood.” Lavrans maintains hope amid bodily despair, believing he would not “lose sight of the salvation toward which [his] soul is moving.” Even strangers come to see the dying man. They listen to the stories his family recounts and become fascinated by the narrative Lavrans himself retells.

When the day of Lavrans’s death arrives, each member of his household and family approaches his bed as he bids them goodbye, tenderly forgives them of all grievances, and blesses them. They remain with him as he struggles to breathe. His last words are those of the 139th Psalm—“when I awake, I am still with you.”

They lay the dead Lavrans in the largest room of their home, expecting many to attend to the death chamber. Kristin notes that her father appears “inexpressibly beautiful” as he lies in repose. Guests pour in. It is reported that “no one had ever seen so many candles brought to a dead man’s bier.”

The account of Lavrans’s death is not, however, a romantic one. His family exhibits great sorrow upon his loss. Lavrans himself is in obvious physical pain, wasting away. However, the mutual support of person and community facilitates a collective experience of death that edifies and consoles each one who participates. Lavrans bestows not just an inheritance but a legacy of example. The scene is not joyful, but rather is marked by a sense of grandeur and goodness, recalling the Psalmist’s claim that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.”

The wisdom of Jorundgaard, the setting for the novel, is crystalized in the widely circulated medieval text, Ars Moriendi, “The Art of Dying.” The fifteenth-century text and subsequent tradition respond to another deadly crisis: the cripplingly large number of deaths due to the bubonic plague. The longer tract of the Ars Moriendi, a woodblock-printed text, was published initially around 1450, one of the first of its kind following the invention of the printing press. The shorter Ars Moriendi was a series of printed images, useful in instructing the illiterate masses.

As death ravaged medieval Europe, the Ars Moriendi became, as Sister Mary Catharine O’Connor describes in her book, a “complete and intelligible guide to the business of dying, a method to be learned . . . and kept at one’s fingers’ ends for use in that all-important and inescapable hour.” In other words, it was a sort of spiritual weapon. 

Its text and images present a rich representation of what O’Connor describes as “the struggle between good and evil . . . [at the scene of death, wherein] the combatants are the evil suggestions of the bad angel and the inspirations of the good.”

A reproduction of an early copy of the Ars Moriendi, located in the British Museum, chronicles the final temptations of a man emaciated by illness. Demons dangle before him the particular temptations familiar to the dying: “unbelief, despair, impatience, vainglory, and attachment to relatives and material possessions.” Fortunately, in each case, good angels stir the dying man to hold fast to his faith and cling to the mercy of God. He ultimately succeeds, entering into the joys of heaven.

But the good angels are not his only ministers. The conclusion of the Ars Moriendi advises the dying man to say a variety of prayers, invoking the assistance of  “Almighty God, of His ineffable mercy and by the virtue of His passion, to receive him to Himself . . . , the glorious Virgin Mary . . ., all the angels, especially his guardian angel . . ., [and] the apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins; addressing himself chiefly to any among them whom he had formerly held in particular veneration.”

Yet it is often the case that many of those who are dying are incapacitated, unable to utter cries to God. The Ars Moriendi thus stresses the importance of bystanders in offering the dying’s final pleas, in persona moriendi. Nevertheless, the writer laments, this role is sorely neglected: “alas . . . how few are there, who, in the hour of death, faithfully assist their neighbors with interrogations, admonitions, and prayers” to God.

Just as the beginning of life is a collaborative, relational act, death too ought to be communal.


Dying Well

The stakes are quite high. Assisting one’s friends in death is not meant to reduce tensions or simply cater to custom. Rather, this assistance is meant to encourage the dying person to rely on the mercy of God. Still, the writer asserts quite bluntly that failure to attend to one’s neighbor at their death might leave “their salvation . . . often miserably imperiled.” Facing the trials of death without the aid of one’s friends can overwhelm and tire the dying person, weakening their resolve to choose the good, and thereby opening them to the conspiracy of the devil.

The process of death is seldom pleasant or cheerful. It often involves labored breathing, flashes of pain, and other undesirable sensations. The faint of heart must steel themselves in order to be prayerful and dutiful witnesses to that moment. Just as the beginning of life is a collaborative, relational act, death too ought to be communal.

Make it non-negotiable to keep an extended vigil at a loved one’s side, expending one’s time and efforts to better encourage him toward reconciliation with God and man. Consider bringing the dying person home, where a greater number of friends and family are permitted to surround him.

This may precipitate a swifter decline in health, yet allow for a crucial shift in focus, enabling a conscious turn toward what is next. Pain alleviation certainly may be helpful, perhaps by giving a patient more time to await the arrival of family members to the bedside. Yet in the hospital spiritual preparation for one’s death risks taking a backseat to managing decline and keeping the patient sedated and quiet, just at the moment when their speech may be essential. Pain alleviation need not be such that the dying one cannot devote attention to the health of his soul.

Enabling “the good death” begins with reviving attentiveness. We must first attend to the dying in our own communities. Care for the dying, in turn, enlivens reflectiveness on our own death. To advocate increased attendance in the death chamber is not meant to scare, nor to set up a macabre museum. It is instead a reminder that all men are mortal and that one’s eternal destiny is of the utmost urgency. It is instead a way to reintroduce and refine the art of dying well. 

Image by Syda Productions and licensed via Adobe Stock.