Being Mortal: A Modern Ars Moriendi

Way back in medieval times, when death could come at any moment and was a whole lot more present in people’s lives than it is now, there was this important notion of the Ars Moriendi, or the art of dying. Texts of this title would describe the ideal way for family members and the dying person themselvesto behave and make sure the dying soul can pass into the afterlife in the right mindset, not overtaken by any sort of sin or flaw. In true medieval style, they show this  process by throwing a bunch of random demon creatures and people into pictures of the scenario. Oh, and also a dying Jesus. Can’t have medieval art without a random depiction of Christ’s agony at the Crucifixion.


Woodcut illustration from an Ars Moriendi text.

We don’t think about death in the same way anymore, and looking at those weird lil’ demon guys in the bottom left corner that does make me a little happier, but a book I came across recently convinced me that, as seldom as we have to face death in this modern day, we need a  modern Ars Moriendi. A book about how we face death, both how we do and how we should, would be very important. Luckily, I finally got my hands on a copy of Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.

Gawande is a doctor that felt increasingly dissatisfied with how the medical community treats death, and how, by extension, the general public reacts to and experiences death as well. He focuses both on elderly people dying of old age in nursing homes and terminally ill people facing a variety of diseases and aggressive medical treatments for them.

Mainly, Gawande believes right now that our society is suffering because too many aspects of death are taken over by the institutional and the medical. There’s the horror stories of relatives abandoned in nursing homes and stripped of all freedom, and there are desperate cancer patients trying so many aggressive treatments in hopes of recovery that more often than not end up shortening their lives.

Reading this book is a very emotional experience, because even if you’re lucky enough to not have anything like this happen to you yet, the personal accounts of patients and people interviewed by Gawande for this book take it beyond philosophy and ethics into a deeply gut-wrenching and emotional journey, one that lends extra weight to the topic and shows people why having this discussion matters.

In the end, that is the main thing I feel Gawande wanted people to take away from his book. It’s not so much a book telling you how to die as it is a book reminding you that you need to discuss how you want to die. As painful as that conversation is, he points to so many times when families, including his own, had the pain of a truly traumatic medical choice lessened by remembering what their loved one said they wanted during a previously held discussion of what they’d wish to endure. In making people discuss death, Gawande hopes they will realize what the current system is lacking in care and kindness, and that people will do what they can to change it, or at least find their family a safe, comforting spot inside it.

This was a really intense read for me, but I kept pushing myself to go on with it because I wanted to be confident I could engage in the modern Ars Moriendi and make sure the people I cared about would be well taken care of when the time comes. As emotional as this book made me, I recommend it for anyone who worries about how their death or that of their loved ones can be handled gracefully and peacefully.


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