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The Art of Dying Well

In November, the month of the Holy Souls, the Bishops’ Conference launched a new website, called the Art of Dying Well (www.artofdyingwell.org), which offers a helping hand to those grappling with issues around death and dying. Based in the Catholic tradition but open to people of all faiths and none, it features real-life stories about the highs and lows of dealing with the final journey. Professionals in palliative care, ethics, chaplaincy and history contributed their expertise to the development of the site.

‘There is evidence that many people want to engage in a conversation about death and dying,’ explained Bishop John Sherrington. ‘The Parliamentary debates and increasing media coverage about assisted suicide, along with the number of internet searches about death and dying, make it clear that people are looking for answers about death, the dying process and the afterlife.’

The Catholic Church has 2000 years’ worth of experience of helping people to die in peace and a treasury of resources and reflections on death, dying and eternity that the Bishops of England and Wales would like to open up to everyone.  

‘Often people leave it until too late to speak about death,’ said Bishop John. The Art of Dying Well aims to help them keep death in mind, so as to fully embrace life now.  ‘We want to help them engage in this most profound conversation, to be reassured by the words of Jesus, and to focus on the hope which eternal life offers.’

Ars Moriendi or ‘Art of Dying’ was a very popular fifteenth-century manuscript designed to bring Christian comfort and practical guidance to a dying person and his/her family. The original Latin texts and illustrations offered advice on the protocols and procedures for a good death. They included deathbed etiquette and prayers, as well as the five temptations that a dying person might face and the prescribed antidotes. 

As a Catholic approaches death, there are a series of comforting rituals that can help him or her to prepare spiritually for the final journey.  In www.artofdyingwell.org these rites and special prayers for the dying are illustrated in an animation which features the fictional story of the Ferguson family, narrated by actress Vanessa Redgrave.

Fr Peter-Michael Scott, Chaplain to St Joseph’s Hospice and the Cardinal’s Advisor for Healthcare Chaplains, explains: ‘The resources on the website can give those who are dying and their relatives, who often do not know what to expect, a sense of what will happen without fear.’

‘The resources can also help with educating other non-Catholic chaplains, nurses and doctors to give them and understanding the Sacrament of the Sick and what Catholic chaplains can do to help those who are dying,’ he added.

Bishop John describes the website as a labyrinth: ‘There are many different entry points. We are invited to begin to explore, to follow the links and to hear the stories, which may help many people find consolation.’

Fr Peter adds: ‘Death is a part of the drama of life but we don’t bring it into our reality. The Art of Dying Well brings death into our normal reality, showing that it is a part of life.’

Indeed it is hoped that some of the materials will be used in schools, particularly with Sixth Form students in RE classes to help them understand the gap between life and death.

The website was launched in November, as it is traditionally the month dedicated to praying for the Holy Souls and for the Fallen on Remembrance Sunday. ‘Hearts and minds are already open to thinking about and engaging in these conversations,’ said Bishop John.

‘We hope that we can start to bring the insights of the website into conversations between individuals, and then gradually into parish catechesis about sickness and bereavement.  And it is our hope that eventually we can make a contribution to the national conversation about death and dying.’

In addition to the website, there is an Instagram account (@artofdyingwell) which hosts a ‘Remember them’ virtual memorial wall, inviting people to post pictures and memories of a loved one who has died or is dying.  By tagging @artofdyingwell on Instagram, these names and photos are shared with five convents and abbeys who will remember and carry in prayer those whose memory is kept alive in these snapshots.  The religious sisters and brothers will also pray for those who have no one to remember or pray for them.

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