Book Review: The Art of Dying

June 01, 2010

Book Review: The Art of Dying

The terrors of death are real. So why did I find myself describing Rob Moll’s The Art of Dying: Living fully into the life to come, as ‘this wonderful book’? We shrink from death and dying, in Australia no less than in Rob Moll’s America. At a safe distance, on the screen, we can tolerate it, even be entertained by it (‘It’s not real’, we say of computer games).

The first time Rob Moll came face to face with a dying relative he was twenty-seven. When he visited his great aunt who was close to death, he realised he knew nothing about facing his own death, or caring for a loved one on her deathbed. This was the genesis of this gentle, thoughtful, forthright book. Christian responses to ethical debates about the end-of-life, that attempted to determine which medical interventions should be administered or withheld, did not satisfy him. Moll ‘wanted to find a Christian response to these issues that would be useful under any medical circumstance, [a response] that upheld the value of life and the dignity of the person’ (p20).

What he found was the tradition of the ‘good death’, the Christian death deliberately prepared for and actively practised from the New Testament onwards, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. But, Moll says, over the last century as a society (he is writing about the Western world), we have relinquished the Christian death: death has been removed to hospitals, into the hands of medical professionals, and out of sight. We have forgotten how to face death and how to care for the dying, and ‘our churches are not teaching us to die well’ (p32).

The book takes its name from the medieval tradition of the good death, ars moriendi, the art of dying. The Reformers adapted the tradition to their theology, and continued the practice. The common themes of this tradition are Rob Moll’s themes as he develops the ars moriendi for the twenty first century.

The chapter entitled ‘The individual, the church and ars moriendi’ concludes:

 The Christian art of dying is not a denial of the awfulness of death. In fact Christians recognise, as Paul did, that death is the last enemy. The Christian tradition of ars moriendi recognised that horror and provided the tools that can help to guide believers through their last hours. The Christian death is an embodiment of a belief in a God who has defeated death and will give life to our own mortal bodies. As we care for the dying and make choices about our own last days, we stand positioned to regain a deeper understanding of this eternal triumph and the hope of Christ’s resurrection. (p68)

This is not a simple book, though it is simply expressed. It would have been easier, perhaps, to take the main themes (‘death requires preparation’; ‘the dying process is a deeply spiritual event’; ’death is to be actively undertaken’; ‘death is to be a public and instructive event’; ‘death injures the community’ p56), and compile a ‘Six Practical Steps to Dying Well’ guide. Or, to concentrate on the death and resurrection of Christ and urge faith not fear, giving examples of those who have done just that. Or, alternatively, simply to take a relational approach and ‘be there’ for us in our fear. Instead Moll has attempted, successfully, to do all three. He is guide and counsellor at our shoulder, reassuring, instructing, and encouraging us to follow him in following Christ.

Like Luther who ‘shaped the sermon [on Preparing to Die], in a way that would calm the fears of his friends and followers as they looked into the eyes of death’, and ‘begins his sermon by acknowledging’ their fear (p60), Moll begins with our fears, explores them, and gives us time to recognise ourselves in his descriptions. And, like Luther, he doesn’t leave us there. He shows us what a good death might look like, how others have prepared for death, and how death has been actively undertaken and experienced as a spiritual event. To see ‘gradual dying’ as ‘opportunity’ (p29), suggests the idea of art, of taking what is given and doing something creative with it. Some have set and accomplished goals in the time remaining. The paradox, the tension between ‘good’ and ‘death’, ‘art’ and ‘dying’ is nowhere dismissed, but rather resolved in the Biblical theme of life from death, preeminently Christ’s death and resurrection. God makes this art possible.

So, how do we prepare for death and dying? The book is specific, direct and intensive in its coverage of end of life issues: family relationships, spiritual preparedness, ‘overcoming the challenges of medicine’ (p108), ‘aggressive end-of-life care’ (p34) and alternatives, carers and caring for the dying, discussing end-of-life wishes with family, setting up a context for the ‘good death’, being present with the dying. Rob Moll has spent time as a hospice volunteer, worked in a funeral home, interviewed doctors and nurses and family. He has a journalist’s skill in reporting firsthand experience and information, and the result is a very practical guide to setting end of life goals and working to achieve them. (A warning: we do not control the circumstances of our death.)

‘No man is an island’.[1] One of the biggest challenges that Rob Moll puts to us is to return to community life where death is public, others learn from those who are dying well, the funeral is an important church event, the grieving are supported and welcomed back into the community. Christian deaths once happened in the context of intergenerational church communities. Our Western cultural tendency is toward independence, segregation into age groups and other interest groups, and isolation. Our churches often reflect the culture outside. Moll presents to us a very attractive alternative: the culture of resurrection that leads to ‘living fully’ now and ‘into the life to come’.

The church embodies [the] reality of life following death... we enjoy an abiding hope that the God who brings life to the dead will do the same for us – not only in the last day, but this one too. This deep hope pervades everything done by the congregation and individual believers. And when it is expressed in daily activities – faith that a difficult job situation will yield spiritual fruit, or perseverance in the long-term care of a parent – it embodies a culture of resurrection... A culture of resurrection takes the lessons of dying well and the hope of new life in Christ and applies them throughout the life of the Christian and in the body of the church. (pp159f)

It sounds like church as it is meant to be. It sounds like church as a living apologetic to a world looking for hope in the face of death.


[1] John Donne, Meditation 17, Devotions upon emergent occasions. Cited in R. Moll, The Art of Dying, p63.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.