Dying well

The archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has written today on the need to talk about death more in our society, and to recover the concept of “a good death”. See also this news report on the archbishop’s comments, and here for more on the Dying Matters Awareness Week referred to by Dr Sentamu.

For many, “a good death” (or, as I’m inclined to prefer, “dying well”) can only mean a death whose timing and circumstances they choose for themselves. As I posted recently, Pope John Paul II offers a different perspective on what a “good death” means. See in particular his observation that:

Even pain and suffering have meaning and value when they are experienced in close connection with love received and given.

Also his call for a “contemplative outlook” in which we “do not take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift”:

This outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death’s door. Instead, in all these situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and precisely in these circumstances it is open to perceiving in the face of every person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity.

The image at the top of this post may be helpful in establishing this contemplative outlook (at least, I hope it is, since I am a long way from possessing such an outlook for myself). It shows a statue at the Abbey of Our Lady of Fontgombault called Notre Dame du Bien Mourir: Our Lady of Dying Well.

This site tells the story of this statue:

Our Lady’s monastery goes back to a hermit by the name of Gombaud who lived in a cave on the site around the year 1000. This Black Madonna was originally known as Our Lady Mediatrix of All Graces. For centuries she watched over the Abbey from her vantage point, high above the northern portal of the abbatial church, overlooking a garden and the little cemetery of the monks.

Her name change goes back to an incident during the Revolution: A young man had climbed a latter with the intent of destroying this statue. He was swinging a hammer, but before he could hurt her he fell and was fatally wounded. He lived just long enough to realized the error of his ways, repent, and make his peace with God and his Mother.

In 1991, the statue was brought inside the abbey church and given the crown that can be seen in the photograph.

(Thanks to Revd Stephen Heard for informing me about Notre Dame de Bien Mourir.)

“So supernatural is the word death”

From The Queer Feet, one of the stories in G.K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown (warning: spoilers, sweetie!):

The proprietor turned upon him, quaking in a kind of palsy of surprise. “You say—you say,” he stammered, “that you see all my fifteen waiters?”

“As usual,” assented the duke. “What is the matter with that!”

“Nothing,” said Lever, with a deepening accent, “only you did not. For one of zem is dead upstairs.”

There was a shocking stillness for an instant in that room. It may be (so supernatural is the word death) that each of those idle men looked for a second at his soul, and saw it as a small dried pea. One of them—the duke, I think—even said with the idiotic kindness of wealth: “Is there anything we can do?”

“He has had a priest,” said the Jew, not untouched.

The context of this isn’t desperately important. I just wanted to draw your attention to one phrase that leapt out at me when I read this: “so supernatural is the word death”.

I was in a bookshop yesterday and saw a copy of Gilbert Adair’s novel The Dreamers on display. A handwritten card on the shelf read: “The recently passed Adair’s best-known novel.”

I had to read the card two or three times to work out what it was saying: “What does it mean, this recently passed Adair’s best-known novel? What was his best-known novel previously, and in what way did this pass it?” Then the penny dropped: the card was informing me that Gilbert Adair had recently died (in December, as it happens).

It’s a vivid example of how the euphemism “passed” is sweeping all before it as an alternative to words such as “death”, “dead” or “died”: words which, as Chesterton observes, have a “supernatural power” that perhaps forces us to spend a second or so looking at our souls. I suspect that the popularity of words like “passed” is a sign that we’d rather not do that. For some reason.

Breaking the circle

In a recent post, I mentioned Richard Beck’s current series of posts on “the slavery of death”.

It is common for Christians to say that death is the consequence of sin. Beck argues that, on the contrary, sin is the consequence of death, and especially our fear of death – and that this is confirmed by both theology and by modern psychology. He takes as the foundation text for his series Hebrews 2:14-15:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

This “slavery” to “the fear of death” manifests itself in the way we are run by envy, rivalry, vengeance and so on (see René Girard and James Alison for details). In a word: sin.

What are we to make, though, of a text such as Romans 6:23: “the wages of sin is death”? Doesn’t this show that Beck is wrong to say that sin is the consequence of death rather than its cause?

The answer, I think, is to see this as a vicious circle: the fear of death leads us to sin, and sin then results in death and the fear of death, and so on. We are trapped in this cycle of sin, death, fear and slavery.

How can we break free from this cycle of destruction? Our instinct, as religious creatures, is to assume that the answer is to deal with the element which we think lies within our control: that is, sin. If we can stop sinning, make ourselves into good people, then we can escape the slavery of death.

The gospel turns this on its head. The way to break the vicious circle of sin and death is to take away the fear of death. Take away the fear of death and its slavery, and – while we won’t stop sinning, any more than we can avoid physical death – sin’s stranglehold on us is broken.

What’s interesting about Beck’s argument is how this great counterintuitive truth of the gospel finds an echo in psychology, where our propensity for behaviours and thoughts that are destructive to us and to others – that is, our sinfulness – is shown to be largely beyond our conscious control, and to be driven by primal fears; principally, the fear of death.

Edit: As this has been raised on Facebook, it’s worth adding a quick note on how linking sin and death can be reconciled with an evolutionary view in which death has been intrinsic to the existence of life from the start.

I tend to see this in terms of Genesis 2:7: “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”. The death which enslaves us is not physical death per se, but the loss of that “extra” life, the “breath of life” which made us truly “living beings” rather than “walking dust”. It’s that “breath of life” that makes the prospect of physical death itself fearful for us.

How the Genesis account then correlates to what happened in space and time is unknowable, but I think the overall message is: sin and death (being “from the beginning”) are fundamental enough to human existence that we cannot escape them unaided, but they are not more fundamental than the breath of life and divine image-bearing which make us human.

The pornography of death

Richard Beck at Experimental Theology is working through a long series of posts on “the slavery of death”, in which Beck is seeking to combine a Christus Victor understanding of salvation with modern psychological research. His argument is that, as human beings, we are “enslaved to the fear of death” – an enslavement from which Christ sets us free.

In his latest post, Beck addresses the objection that modern Americans (and those of us elsewhere in the west) don’t actually think about death much, so how can we be enslaved to the fear of it? Beck responds by arguing that “our slavery to the fear of death is largely neurotic in nature”, and that “this neurotic anxiety about death completely saturates our daily existence”, affecting every aspect of our lives. He writes:

Of course, you don’t notice any of this. That’s the point. You don’t see how death affects your gym membership, your hair cut, your clothing, your shopping, your entertainment, your love of sports, your patriotism, your vote, your boob job, your greed, your vanity, your worries, your rivalries, your accomplishments, your pride in your kids, your church attendance, your very sense of self.

So why don’t we notice this? Beck points out how death has been pushed out of sight in our daily lives. Our food is less obviously connected to death than for our agrarian ancestors who would often have personally killed the food they ate. (A friend of ours once told me his mother has no comprehension of vegetarianism, mostly because, as a girl, if her family were having chicken for dinner then it was her job to go into the garden, select a chicken and wring its neck.)

Death is no longer a part of our homes. People die in hospitals now, not at home, and they are prepared for burial (or cremation – itself, it seems to me, an attempt to push death further out of sight) in funeral parlours rather than in the parlours (now renamed living rooms) of our homes.

Even in cemeteries we now prefer to avoid the “morbid” attention to death found in previous ages (such the angel of death motifs Beck observed in Boston graveyards from the 1600s). And we use euphemisms such as “passing” instead of the blunt language of death and dying.

Beck then uses a striking term (taken from Geoffrey Gorer) to describe this: the pornography of death. Death has become pornographic: something unfit for “polite discussion or contemplation”, something “uncouth and vulgar” to mention. Not Safe For Work.

As Beck concludes:

Though we don’t give death much thought, death hasn’t gone anywhere. So what has happened in cultures like America is that we are living in a sort of unreality. With nothing to remind us to the contrary, Americans don’t give death much thought at all. And this tempts us into thinking that death doesn’t really exist. That we might, in fact, live forever. Thus, any reminders to the contrary are experienced as disruptive, morbid, and pornographic. They are rude affronts to the fantasy world we are creating.

Americans, thus, are living in an illusion, living as if they were immortal and immune to death. Consequently, there is massive cultural and psychic pressure to deny the existence and power of death. And anxiety that was once overt has become covert. What was once a conscious engagement with death has been pushed into the unconscious. Basic anxiety about death has been traded for neurotic anxiety. We live in a culture, according to Ernest Becker, where the “denial of death” is our ruling reality.

In short: we’re slaves, but we don’t know it.

Image: © Copyright Martyn Gorman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.