(Yes, I’m reviewing another book about death and dying. This is an important issue with which healthcare professionals need to come to terms. Our system of care is not designed to help people die well. This impacts quality of life and the cost of care.)
My mother-in-law passed away several months ago and my wife has been making regular trips to Williamsburg to help get the estate in order. My mother-in-law, Shirley, was an eternal student and a retired educator. She loved to immerse herself in her studies, and had a huge collection of books. When my wife, Scotti, was going through Shirley’s books, she found “The Art of Dying: Living Fully Into The Life To Come.” Shirley knew that she was dying for some time, and approached death as she did all subjects – she read everything she could on the subject! As someone who had spent her life studying religion and spirituality, she had a special interest in Christian views on death and dying.
Scotti knows that I’ve been doing a lot of reading about end of life and the role of healthcare (slow medicine versus rescue medicine, etc). So, once she finished reading the book, she passed it on to me. Last week, while on an airplane flying up and down the east coast, I read The Art of Dying.
The author is intrigued with the Christian tradition of a “good death.” He describes how Christians have grown removed from this notion of a good death, just as they have become unfamiliar with death itself. Death is not integrated into our lives in North America, as it once was. With the development of hospitals and retirement communities, we are in many ways separated from the dying. And, many of us are separated by great distances from our aging family members.
“For most of the last century, death has moved steadily away from view. Over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, the site of death moved from the home to the hospital.In 1908, 14 percent of all deaths occurred in an institutional setting, either a hospital, nursing home or other facility. Just six years later the figure jumped to 25 percent. By the end of the century it was nearly 80 percent.” (p. 16)
One of the interesting point the author makes is that, for the first time in history, many of us can anticipate the approximate date of our demise. This is because of the change from a quick death from infectious disease to more gradual dying. Today, most of us do not die from sudden death. Rather, death is something we see coming. One would think that this advanced notice would give us the time needed to prepare for meeting our maker, but that is not typically what happens. In our culture, we spend that time trying to fend off death, seeking medical interventions (often in response to family members who aren’t ready to let go), and looking for a silver bullet. And the truth is, our medical system is designed to save lives rather than help people have a good death.
The Art of Dying won’t be an uplifting read. You probably gathered that from the title. But the author, Rob Moll, does touch on some interesting and important points about the ways in which we deal with dying in America. Our medical establishment and culture of medicine are certainly part of the story. We’re all going to deal with these issues sooner or later. This book may give you a new perspective.