The Christian Art of Dying

“Dying well in America is hard work. And American Christianity has not helped much,” Allen Verhey says in his new book, The Christian Art of Dying: Learning From Jesus. Verhey, professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, is right that modern dying is unusually difficult. In return for the promise of longer life and less pain, we have accepted deaths that are more complicated, extended over the course of years, and cut off from those we love.

Verhey is by no means the first to express concern over this “medicalized death.” But he adds a helpful critique of the movements that have arisen in response to the problems of modern dying.

The bioethics movement, for example, has insisted on the right of patients to choose what medical care will be given to them. Their effort led to the legal right to refuse medical treatment. While Christians can support this step, Verhey points out that “by attending to the procedural question about who should decide, it allows us to ignore the substantive moral questions about what should be decided and about the virtues that should mark the one who decides.” And Christians have done little to help our culture answer those questions.

On the other hand, the death awareness movement has insisted that death is natural, that it need not be feared or avoided. The weakness here, Verhey says, is that in its insistence that death is natural, the movement neglects to point out that death is also a terrible evil.

The hospice movement, Verhey says, has offered the best alternative to medicalized death. Its focus has been to care for the patient, using medicine as a tool toward that end. Hospice seeks to maintain the patient’s connection to his or her community, including the community of faith. However, hospice has its own weakness. “A generic spirituality has replaced [founder Cicely] Saunder’s commitment to the Christian faith.” As Verhey notes, “generic faith” is not a faith open to all, but rather a unique faith of its own, often one at odds with Christian beliefs.

Christian Response

To offer a Christian response to medicalized death, Verhey looks to two sources. First he assesses the medieval tradition of ars moriendi, the “self help” guide for the dying that was printed in the wake of the plague. It taught the virtues that enable the dying to overcome the temptations of death and thereby obtain eternal peace with God: faith, hope, love and patience, humility, and letting go of the things of the world.

While Verhey takes the medieval ars moriendi as a model for his approach, he is by no means uncritical of it either. Among other errors, which Verhey points out, it teaches that death is a good in itself. It also teaches an escapist attitude toward death as the entry to a new, better life away from this world of suffering. Verhey’s foremost complaint however is that ars moriendi teaches nothing about the resurrection, the ultimate hope of the Christian that shapes our approach to both life and death.

The Christian Art of Dying: Learning From Jesus
Allen Verhey
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The Christian Art of Dying: Learning From Jesus
Allen Verhey
Eerdmans (2011). 423 pp.

A renowned ethicist who himself faced death during a recent life-threatening illness, Allen Verhey in The Christian Art of Dying sets out to recapture dying from the medical world. Seeking to counter the medicalization of death that is so prevalent today, Verhey revisits the fifteenth-century Ars Moriendi, an illustrated spiritual self-help manual on “the art of dying.” Finding much wisdom in that little book but rejecting its Stoic and Platonic worldview, Verhey uncovers in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ death a truly helpful paradigm for dying well and faithfully.

Still, ars moriendi is a helpful model as Christians seek to relearn an art of dying that will help us respond faithfully to the difficulties of modern dying. Its centuries-long tradition as a Christian approach to death is worth learning from.

Verhey uses Jesus’ death as a final model for modern dying. Jesus is our example to the despair, pain, suffering, and loss of death. Beginning with “My God, my God” and ending with “It is finished,” Verhey traces Jesus’ words to outline how a Christian approach to death might follow Jesus’ example.

Source and Object of Hope

A modern ars moriendi that learns from the example of Jesus must be taught and practiced in the church. As Verhey writes,

The church, formed by its practices and by its faith in God, can provide responses to suffering that do not simply manage it by drugs for pain. . . . . It knows the source and the object of Christian hope and it can speak of it. It knows that love is already the rule of God, and it can nurture it. It is trained in patience, looking for the good future of God. It knows its neediness, knows that there is no boasting before God, and it can nurture humility. And because it trusts God, it knows and teaches that the tightfisted anxiety that thinks our security and our lives are in our own hands is folly.

Unfortunately, having spent 300 pages elaborating on modern challenges to dying well, reviewing the history of ars moriendi, and expounding relevant Scripture, Verhey’s highly academic approach leaves just 100 pages to lay out a Christian art of dying. I would have liked less critique and more “how to.” His style is also affected with constant repetitions of phrases like “God’s good future,” which occurs 37 times throughout the book.

The advice Verhey offers, however—from funerals and advance directives to the sacraments and caregiving—should be considerately applied in any congregation. The church’s goal, of course, is to practice its faith in that moment when we clearly express the beliefs by which we have lived. For Christians, that means, as Verhey writes, that “God’s victory over death has robbed death of its sting,” that “we will not finally be alienated from our flesh or from the community, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”