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Planning and hoping for a good death in as part of life well-lived

By Judy Knotts
Special to the American-Statesman
Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church and former head of St. Gabriel's Catholic School and St. Michael's Catholic Academy. Her newest book, "You Are My Brother," is a collection of past American-Statesman faith columns.

In the words of acclaimed short story writer, Edith Pearlman, “But what counted was how you behaved while death let you live, and how you met death when life released you.”  

One of the peculiarities of having lived 80 years is the number of funerals you attend. This is probably not surprising. Age has a way of dealing the luckless cards.   

Despite being familiar with the death of children and young people, ironically, it is the seniors who show me life can seem too short. I presume all of us question — why this person or that person died, and ponder — what is a life well-lived?  

Pearlman’s words resonate — “How you behaved while death let you live.” Her word choice, “behaved” shouts of intension and ownership. 

Our beginnings are random. Whether advantaged or disadvantaged, cherished or neglected, we make the decision how we will behave as we work our way through life. And it’s rarely easy.  

My Irish grandma, who I didn’t know well, loved funerals. When there was a death notice in the paper, she would ask my mother, her daughter-in- law, to drive her to the service. Sometimes, I am told, she didn’t even know the person who died. She simply wanted to pay her respects, sample some funeral home cookies and socialize. 

I suspect the spiritual rituals and stories told at the wake or reception made my grandma imagine how people lived their life and met their death. Funerals, if we let them, have a way of inviting reflection. 

Considering her own behavior in life, my grandma must have wondered how she ever really thanked her family for scrimping and saving for one ticket so she could escape the famine in Ireland. She must have wondered if her gratitude was expressed often enough to the distant relatives who took her into their home.  She must have wondered how a child coming to America alone showed appreciation to a country that gave her a chance to flourish. 

Some of us seniors think about how “we will meet our death when life releases us.” Various faith traditions have differing views on the afterlife —  what it is — or even if it is. Personally, we might be curious or not. 

The pressing question for oldsters often is not death, but dying. Some die in their sleep or in an accident that results in death with little time to consider what is happening. The rest of us have the opportunity over weeks, months or maybe years, to examine how we will meet death. Like birth, death is one of the distinctive steps of our journey. 

The Sacred Heart nuns who taught me in high school and college, sometimes prayed for a happy death. This sounded macabre; I was too young to grasp the real meaning. Age can increase one’s awareness of life’s passages — the missteps, the best steps, the final steps — if we have the luxury of time and the determination to consider how we want to die. 

The wise ones among us nearing death want palliative care, not curative care. We don’t want to die alone, instead surrounded by a circle of supportive people who honor our wishes and help us make the transition from life to death.

Many facing death in the offing would prefer to die at home, if hospitalization and institutional services are not necessary. And, we would want our dying as painless as possible physically with relationships reconciled. 

A happy death is not a new idea. In delving into the topic, I discovered the term — Ars Moriendi — the art of dying. This theological, psychological and practical approach to dying well was developed in medieval Europe to guide clergy and laypeople.  It was honest. We live and we die. The essential question was how? 

Dr. L.S. Dugdale, author of the recent text, "The Lost Art of Dying," states: “The ars moriendi ignored the question of whether death is good or bad. Instead, it simply suggested that ‘to die well is to die gladly and willfully.'” 

 “I want to die easy when I die.

I want to die easy when I die.

Shout salvation as I fly,

I want to die easy when I die.”

—  African-American Spiritual  

Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church, and former head of St. Gabriel’s Catholic School and St. Michael's Catholic Academy. Her newest book, “You Are My Brother,” is a collection of past American-Statesman faith columns.