Sister Death

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape. (St Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun)

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

On the 21st of April 1109, St Anselm of Canterbury lay ill in his cell. One of the monks came to read to him the Gospel from that day’s Mass. While the monk was reading, writes Eadmer, his biographer:

he began to draw his breath more slowly than usual. We felt therefore that he was now on the point of death, and he was lifted from his bed onto sackcloth and ashes. The whole congregation of his sons gathered round him, and, sending forth his soul into the hands of the Creator, he slept in peace.

A few decades later, with his monastic sons gathered around him, St Stephen Harding, abbot of Citeaux, would die with the word, ‘Crist’ on his lips (that is, ‘Christ’ in his native English, rather than ‘Christus’ [nominative] or ‘Christe’ [vocative] in Latin).

In the hospitals of medieval Europe, when the doctors and others had done all they could, and it became clear that a patient was dying, the community would gather around his or her bed and pray the office, singing hymns and psalms to escort the Christian soul to the throne of grace.

This is the good death. Surrounded by your community, by those whom you love, bathed in prayer, being escorted into the presence of God by them. This is how most accounts of the deaths of beloved medieval individuals are described.

Not alone. Not at the hand of another. Not with tubes and machines and a sterile smell that itself reeks of death in its worst incarnations.

We live in community. Why should we die alone?

Die we all shall, more certain even than paying taxes.

Yet our culture has a strange and awkward relationship with death. We put it out of the way, hide it in a back corner. In the quest for the unfettered, individual will, doctors are now allowed to kill upon request under certain circumstances. We slay the unwanted unborn. But we also prolong life sometimes beyond true liveability.

And once a person dies, for some reason we embalm them. I am no Pharaoh. This makes no sense to me. Allow me to rot. ‘Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.’

For the medievals, death was there, confronting them. Inescapable. A world without vaccines, without anaesthetic, with much hard labour and poor living conditions. A world of war. Beginning in the 1340s, the Black Death (consider the dance of death carved in Rosslyn Chapel a century later).

They had better medicine, surgery, and science than you probably think.

But people were still more likely to die then than they are now.

They thus knew how to die. Gather the community. Surround yourself with those you love. Pray together. Sing together. Escort the dying into the embrace of the Divine.

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3 thoughts on “Sister Death

  1. “The whole congregation of his sons” – how wonderful.

    Dying well is so important, as is learning to die – very much a lost art among the Christian community IMHO

    Speaking as an oncologist, we always try wherever possible to get our patients home to die, rather than in hospital.

    But this is all out of left field young man – trust all is very well with you and yours.

    • My wife’s grandfather died the day after I finished Eadmer’s Life of St Anselm, so this started coalescing in my head. The death was not unexpected — mortality being swallowed up by life.

      Her grandmother died of cancer at home with those she loved, singing praises, in fact. Just like St Anselm.

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