7. The Dying Art

We do not know, unless we deliberately choose it, the hour of our death. Will we recognise it when we get there? Will the signs be unambiguous? Who will confirm our awareness?

A year or so ago, a sister in the religious community to which I belong died. Sabina just missed her ninety-fifth birthday. To the day she died she was an adventurous and vibrant person, a life-relishing spirit, destined to wear out rather than rust. After her alleged ‘retirement’ in her early seventies, Sabina began visiting the elderly in the inner-city. The stamina and devotion she brought to this endeavour are legendary.

In her last short illness, Sabina was very alert to what was happening to her. There was initially a tone of surprise in the question she insistently asked several times in those last few days: ‘Am I dying?’ She wanted to know if this was the moment, the right time. Surprise gave way to realisation, realisation to acceptance.

In a letter of February 1944, written from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer highlights the importance and difficulty of discerning such a right time. Written in the context of his own relationship with the Third Reich, it raises the question of how much effort should be made to get him out of prison, and then it should simply be accepted as what had to be.

It is a brave statement:

I’ve often wondered here where we are to draw the line between necessary resistance to ‘fate’ and equally necessary submission.

The distinction Bonhoeffer draws is applicable to many situations, and true discernment is required to recognise one’s position and respond accordingly. Sabina’s question about dying was not a vain or foolish one. She needed to know whether it was time to cling to the known or submit to the unknown, fight for one type of life, or surrender to another. She needed an explicit answer to that question, ‘Am I dying?’ She needed independent testimony to verify that she was undergoing a rite of passage. And we needed to be able to say to her honestly that, yes, in fact, she was dying. That was difficult, but it was said.

Most twentieth century urban cultures have so thoroughly sanitised and segregated dying that we have lost our way with it. We have forgotten its rituals, its feel, its rhythms. In avoiding its pain we have deprived ourselves of its ordinariness: its place in our households.

Celtic spirituality has much to teach us about these matters. The renowned nineteenth century folklorist, Alexander Carmichael, recorded many of the prayers and customs of the islanders of the Hebrides. Their isolation and simple lifestyle had kept them in touch with the ancient richness of Celtic spirituality. There were many rituals attached to death and dying.

The dying person was attended by family and neighbours, and by the anamchara, her own particular ‘soul-friend’. The anamchara would pray over the dying person and sign the cross on the lips, initiating the death blessing, known as the ‘soul-leading’. It was fitting that the anamchara, the one who knew the dying person intimately, and would be aware of his or her struggles and virtues, should undertake these prayers on the person’s behalf.

The soul-leading prayers explicitly direct the dying person to her fate: they are journeying songs, bidding farewell, as well as laments expressing the grief of those remaining. There is penitence, awareness of the need for protection from evil, but overridingly there is a joyous anticipation of light and life.

There is a tradition of praying for a happy death. No doubt, part of that happiness is pure grace, God-given and incalculable. But part of it perhaps can be experienced in knowing and surrendering to one’s right time in the company of friends, and having a soul-leading prayer recited on one’s behalf.


The shade of death

lies upon thy face, Beloved,

     But the Jesus of grace has his hand

round about thee.

     In nearness to the Trinity

farewell to thy pains,

Christ stands before thee

and peace is in his mind.


First published in Madonna, Nov/Dec 1998.