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.)

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