Archive for October 4th, 2013

005 ‘dying well’ versus ‘the good death’

I’ve just started my M.Litt dissertation.  My supervisor suggested the practice of writing something every day, something akin to a journal entry rather than a formal academic piece.

I have neither the time nor energy to write every day, but I will when I get the chance and I suppose why not put it out here for the 7 people who read this to see it, critique and hopefully give me some feedback to make it better. 

The basic idea for the thesis goes something like this:

How does modern medicine’s domination of how we die form problems for the Christian tradition of Ars Moriendi

Here’s what I wrote today:


While on the surface it’s perhaps difficult to see the difference between the two terms

  • Dying well

  • The good death

Yet, if I’m correct (and it’s yet to be seen) then there’s an important difference to be drawn out.

Like most phrases like this, it all depends by what you mean by them. Both are so short as to carry very little specific meaning. There is some specific content to them but it’s also how, and by whom the two phrases are used that helps to bring out the differences.

Dying well has its origins in the Christian ars moriendi literature already discussed. The ars moriendi means the “art of dying well”. It was a specific body of Christian literature, coming in the time following the great schism and the black death. It was popular literature for those unfortunately accustomed to wide spread, horrific death.

Christians can die well, so the ars moriendi go. There may be temptations to avoid, and virtues to pursue but we can at least die well. There are many modern day Christians and non-Christians who continue to use the phrase ‘dying well’ as a goal for those confronted with their own mortality. Given the rampant medicalisation of our deaths, the contemporary idea of dying well has been a welcome asset. Palliative care is perhaps the best example that the medical field has put forward, with a focus on symptom control and dying at home. [Not that palliative care is without its problems as I’ve previously mentioned.]

The good death is (i hope to argue) a somewhat different term. Sitting on my shelf is a book of the same name, subtitled ‘the new american search to reshape the end of life’. The subtitle tells a tale in itself. When I talk about the good death, I’m taking about the modern notion that the good death is the death that is freely chosen. The modern emphasis on the self and on autonomy is the key here. What people often fear most in the contemporary world is the loss of choice, autonomy and independence that ill health brings. The only way that such a situation might end well is in the death freely chosen.

It is no coincidence that the language of the good death is perhaps most prevalent in those talking about ‘assisting dying’. One of the ways to make it slightly more palatable is to rephrase what we think about death. If death is ‘natural’ (hard to argue against) and so is childbirth then surely death is just one part of the journey. Indeed, death is the most natural thing in the world. We can avoid the nastiness surrounding our death by taking back ownership of it.

At present I have no real idea if that’s really what the new good death literature actually says. I may be painting a horrible caricature of it. But what I’m going to attempt to say is that as Christians, we can die well, we have all kinds of spiritual and moral resources available to us that perhaps not everyone does. However, I don’t think we can sign up to a good death. There was never anything good about death and yer man Thomas was onto something when he asked us to ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ Paul was onto something similar when he said his bit.


October 2013