Among the pieces of paper signifying rites of passage in my life, the latest to arrive was my Medicare card. It seems like only yesterday I received my draft card, another government-issued document. There now remains only my death certificate, which presumably I will not be obliged to carry around in my wallet. And who knows when that will arrive? I like to think I have a few good years left, perhaps more than a few. Still, it’s not too early to give the subject of my own demise the thought it deserves.
The Greeks gave a lot of thought to the subject of living well, perhaps a necessary prelude to dying well. They even had a word for it: eudaimonia, pronounced “ewe-die-mo-nee-ah,” with the accent on the second syllable. The word literally means “a good spirit (or god) within.” Although sometimes translated as “happiness,” eudaimonia is more nearly rendered as “well-being,” the result of a life lived in accord with one’s inner nature. We might think of it as how your life would unfold if you always listened to your guardian angel.
Aristotle, who is most closely identified with the subject of eudaimonia, conceded that living well is at least partly dependent on good fortune. It is one thing to be born into circumstances that permit one, say, to live the life of a philosopher and quite another to be born a slave. Similarly, you can argue that dying well has a lot to do with the circumstances of one’s death. My mother-in-law, for example, lived a healthy, active life until she suddenly collapsed and died at age 89, shortly after returning home from a concert. My own mother died a lingering death at age 88 from the effects of vascular dementia, unable to recognize her grandchildren or remember much of her past.
Nowadays we tend to equate a good death with an absence of suffering. This was strangely irrelevant in earlier eras, when bodily suffering was much more a fact of life than today. It was assumed that life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes, so why should death be any different? If anything, death promised respite from all leading up to it. The real issue was whether a dying person would be able to resist the wiles of the devil until the very end.
Momento mori (“remember you must die”) was for the Romans a reminder to enjoy life while they still could; for Christians it was a warning of what awaited those who enjoyed life just a little too much. Most people, of course, needed no reminding either way. War, disease and famine held sway everywhere over everyone. Not long after the Black Death had devastated much of Europe in the 14th century, there emerged an artistic genre known as the danse macbre depicting the living and the dead dancing hand in hand toward the grave. In his final sermon, the poet John Donne, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, told his congregation, “We have a winding-sheet in our mother's womb which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding-sheet, for we come to seek a grave.”
Against the backdrop of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War in Europe, an anonymous Dominican friar published a hugely popular handbook on death called Ars moriendi that purported to instruct clergy and laity alike in the finer points of dying well. A short version with woodcut illustrations concentrated on the particular temptations facing the dying person, including lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride and avarice. The woodcuts were presented in pairs, with the first showing devils attending the bedside of the dying person during his final temptation and angels on hand when a particular temptation was overcome. While a deathbed conversion was always possible, the Ars moriendi cautioned that the best preparation for a good death was a good life, so that wise Christians “may die safely, every hour, when God will."
Now that physicians have largely supplanted priests as primary deathbed attendants, the emphasis has shifted from preparing people for death to keeping them alive at all costs – so much so that binding legal documents must be drawn up in advance to allow people to die in peace. Apart from relief of suffering, there is no longer much interest in – or understanding of – dying well, which inevitably compromises any sense we may have of living well. After all, when it comes to eudaimonia, the first thing you need to understand is that one day you die.