Monday, June 15, 2009

The Good Death

Central to understanding death in mid-nineteenth century America was the concept of the Good Death, as it had long been at the core of Christian practice. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust writes:

Dying was an art, and the tradition of ars moriendi had been provided rules of conduct for the moribound and their attendants since at least the fifteenth century; how to give up ones soul "gladlye and wilfully."; how to meet the devil's temptations of unbelief, despair, impatience, and worldly attachment; how to pattern one's dying on that of Christ; how to pray. Texts on the art of dying proliferated with the spread of vernacular printing, culminating in 1651 in London with Jeremy Taylor's The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying. His revision of the originally Catholic ars moriendi proved not just a literary achievement but an intellectual triumph that firmly established the genre within Protestantism.

During the Civil War, Americans North and South, and across religious and denominational lines, agreed upon death's transcendent importance. Even Jews and Christians were more alike than different in regard to their views of death, particularly of the afterlife. Faust asserts that the "shared crisis of battle yielded a common effort to make the notion of a Good Death available to all."

Unlike other life transitions--birth, marriage, various accidents, sickness--death's significance arose from its absolute and unique permanence.  A Presbyterian tract distributed to Confederate soldiers warned: "Death fixes our state. Here [on Earth] everything is changing and unsettled. Beyond the grave our condition is unchangeable. What you are when you die, the same will reappear in the great day of eternity. The features of character with which you leave the world will be seen in you when you rise from the dead."

The hors moriendi, the hour of death, was thus considered critical for one's eternal state and was to be "carefully prepared for by any sinner who sought to be worthy of salvation." Faust writes: "The sudden and all but unnoticed deaths of unidentified diseased and wounded men denied these consolations. Civil War battlefields and hospitals could have provided the material for an exemplary test on how not to die."

Several elements were considered critical in a Good Death. First, death's appropriate setting was domestic and familial. Death occurred at home and the dying loved one was surrounded by family. Hospitals housed the indigent, not respectable citizens. Faust notes that up until the first decade of the 20th century, fewer than 15% died away from home. Ideally, as well as customarily, death occurred at home among family members gathered at the bedside. This was not only in order to offer the dying one comfort but to witness the death and assess the state of the soul. Hearing the loved one's last utterance was critical to this assessment. "Kin would use their observations of the deathbed to evaluate the family's chances for a reunion in heaven. A life was a narrative that could only be incomplete without this final chapter, without the life-defining last words."

Second, in a Good Death, the dying person would be conscious of her or her fate and would demonstrate a willingness to accept it. Furthermore, the dying would show signs of belief in God and in the promise of salvation. Finally, they would utter those aforementioned life-defining last words, leaving loved ones on earth with some "lingering" lesson about the nature of eternal life. These last words formed an intimate, enduring bond between the living and the dead. For the families of those soldiers who died away from home, to be deprived of those last lessons complicated grief immeasurably.

On the battlefield and in camp, in the absence of family members, a soldier's comrades, as well as nurses, doctors, and chaplains, provided the soldier with as many components of a Good Death as possible.  Chaplains North and South saw instruction in the traditions of the ars moriendi as a solemn obligation to the soldiers in their spiritual charge, "a duty Catholic Father William Corby described as 'the sad consolation of helping die well.'"

It would be interesting to compare and contrast the mid-nineteenth century notion of the Good Death with the twenty-first century notion of "dying well," as set forth by Ira Byock, M.D and others. Please look forward to further posts on this subject here and take a moment to look in at Distant Temple Bell where I will be continuing the discussion.

(H.P Simmons "The Dying Soldier" New York: Thomas Kelly 1870. Engraving by A. Turrell)

1 comment:

Sukie Curtis said...

Seems like a lot of pressure and expectation on the dying--all that stuff associated with dying well! Even eternal lessons to impart to those left behind--yikes!