‘Ars Moriendi’ and Dying a ‘Good Death’ Explained

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In many cultures around the world, there’s a lot of importance around dying a ‘good death’ vs. a ‘bad death.’ What exactly is a good death, and what does it mean in different religions? In Christianity, you frequently find the term ‘ars moriendi’ in relation to a good vs. bad death. 

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‘Ars moriendi’ is another way of saying ‘the art of dying,’ and it refers to a genre of books around Medieval church rituals for the dying. Is there really such a thing as a ‘good death’ that stems from ‘the art of dying?’ 

Everyone overcomes the challenge of dealing with mortality. Learning some of the context, study, and history around dying well is an easy way to break some of the boundaries around this conversation. In this guide, we’ll explain ‘ars moriendi’ and dying a ‘good death.’

What’s ‘Ars Moriendi’? 

‘Ars moriendi’ is a Latin term for ‘the art of dying.’ The term itself dates back to around 1415. It started as a text offering advice on the procedures for achieving a ‘good death’ according to Christian perception. 

This was a religious text, and it began in Germany. Because the text was so popular, it began to be translated and spread across Europe. Soon, this developed into its very own genre in Christian literature throughout the Middle Ages as a way to share the best practices for Christian living and dying. 

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What does ‘Ars Moriendi’ mean?

As explained above, ‘ars moriendi’ is Latin for ‘the art of dying.’ This wasn’t an actual art form. What this phrase means is the specific practices around death and dying that encourage Godliness and abstaining from sins. 

In Christianity, there are a number of rites to be followed before death. This relates to the concept of a ‘good death.’ A good death was one free from sin, typically with a priest to administer a final confession and last rites at the bedside. To die unexpectedly and away from home was to have a ‘bad death,’ and this was a sign of bad luck. 

Dying away from home, on the battlefield, or suddenly could lead to death while still living in sin. Those who committed sins in their lifetime without redemption might find themselves facing judgment in the afterlife. Instead, people strove to achieve a ‘good death’ through staying close to the church.

By defining ‘the art of dying,’ it’s easy to see death as something that’s not to be feared. Recently, more people have taken action to become death positive in our modern-day. While this is a popular trend, it’s by no means a new concept. Death positivity existed in the Middle Ages, and much of it was sparked by ‘ars moriendi’ and this concept of dying well and without fear. 

How did the book come about?

The first ‘ars moriendi’ book came about in 1415, as mentioned above. It was created anonymously by a Dominican friar. It quickly grew in popularity, spreading across Western Europe and translated into several different languages. 

As it gained popularity, similar books popped up in the Christian faith. One of the most well-known works in this genre is Holy Living and Holy Dying

Why was this original genre so popular? This is a two-part answer. First, ‘ars moriendi’ as a movement began at the start of the printing revolution. With the introduction of the movable type printing press, it became easier to spread information and publish books in larger quantities than ever before. 

Second, the first ‘ars moriendi’ was a response to the black death. This was a time when people were dying at higher numbers than ever before, and there was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding around the spread of this illness. People were looking for answers as well as hope. ‘Ars moriendi’ is a new way to look at death, and a way to see life as a way to achieve a better death. 

What Did ‘Ars Moriendi’ Say About Dying a Good Death?

While it’s not an easy read, learning more about the topics discussed inside ‘ars moriendi’ is a rewarding experience. There are two versions, a short version and a long version. This was a way to make the work even more accessible, especially in an age where literacy rates were low.

The shorter version is an adaptation of the second chapter in the longer version, and this is often seen as the most important chapter for Christians. Let’s take a closer look at what happens in each chapter of ‘ars moriendi.’  

Chapter 1

The first chapter is an argument for the ‘good side’ of death. According to ‘ars moriendi,’ death doesn’t always need to be feared. This first chapter was for those who were dying or who knew someone who was dying. The message was simple: death is a part of life. 

This was a timely chapter, especially considering that disease, war, and famine were common in the 1400s and 1500s. Life wasn’t guaranteed in those days, and there was little medical intervention available for the average folks. Finding some peace in the concept of death was important, and this book offered hope that death wasn’t an ending. 

Chapter 2

The second chapter is the one that’s considered to be the most important within ‘ars moriendi.’ This is the chapter that was shortened in the abridged version of the publication. 

In this chapter, there are five different temptations that were to be avoided by the dying man. It also included real-life advice for avoiding them. The five temptations were:

  • Lack of faith
  • Despair
  • Impatience
  • Spiritual pride
  • Avarice

Each temptation is illustrated with woodcut artwork, showing the best way to avoid temptations. Because of the images, it was easy to spread the information from ‘ars moriendi’ amongst all groups of people. 

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Chapter 3

Chapter 3 is an exploration of 7 questions to ask the dying. It also shares practical advice for helping him stay consoled through the redemption of Christ. 

The ultimate takeaway here is that the dying man shouldn’t be left alone in his fear. Through Christ’s redemption, the church, and loved ones, hope is found. 

Chapter 4

This chapter was a reminder to imitate Christ’s life. Specifically, it asks the dying to imitate his actions on the cross in his final moments. 

There is a prayer for the dying and ‘everlasting bliss’ which is only achieved through death. Christ rewards those who live in his image, so this is something to hold onto in one’s final moments. 

Chapter 5

There’s a shift in the 5th chapter. This is when the advice turns from the dying to the living. It addresses friends and family, and it helps them stay strong and to take the leading role. 

It’s up to the friends and family of the dying to encourage them to find God. They should present the dying with images of the cross and the crucifix. They are to help them repent in their final hours and also take care of the more practical aspects of preparing affairs. 

Surprisingly, chapter 5 also reminds the friends and family to prepare for their own deaths. This was unusual for literature up until this point, but it’s an early display of death positive actions amongst these people. 

Chapter 6

Finally, chapter 6 grapples with the final moments of one’s life. It’s for when the dying individual can no longer speak for themselves. At this time, it’s up to the attendants to recite prayers and welcome the deceased’s soul into God’s hands. 

Another way to think about this chapter is the final goodbye. It explains the appropriate way to pray for the dying individual, and how to ensure they reach a ‘good death.’ 

Ars Moriendi: Frequently Asked Questions

Like all things related to life and death, it’s normal to have questions. Latin phrases like “Ars Moriendi” have largely fallen out of use in daily life outside of academics. If you’re not familiar with classic Latin and the culture around death and dying, here are some of the most frequently asked questions and their answers. 

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Who wrote “Ars Moriendi”?

As a literary genre or theme, “Ars Moriendi” was coined by Jean Gerson. Gerson was a French scholar, educator, and poet. He was one of the first thinkers around natural rights theory, and he also gave a lot of thought to death and dying. His work was originally written in French in 1403, but it was later translated into Latin. The original audience for his work was priests, encouraging them to prepare for death and help prepare their followers. 

In his work Opus Tripartitum, he spoke of the art of death. This was a way to prepare for and manage the final months, weeks, days, and hours of a believer’s life. Later thinkers and writers were very influenced by his ideas, and thus the term was born. 

What are the seven questions in “Ars Moriendi?” 

In “Ars Moriendi,” a Dominican friar shares questions and concerns around preparing for death. Written to guide priests and their followers leading up to death, the original author poses 7 questions to present to the dying person. These questions are about:

  • Commitment to faith
  • Fear of the Lord
  • Genuine contrition
  • Commitment to living piously
  • Forgiveness of enemies
  • Restoration of ill-gotten goods to others
  • Belief that Christ died for their sins

Through each of these questions above, the dying individual gains a deeper understanding of their relationship to faith. Priests could guide their followers through these questions, considering their experiences and relationships with God throughout their lives. These questions could be adapted by the specific priest, and they were seen as a foundation, not a hard-and-fast rule. 

These questions were to be posed by the priest at one’s bedside. In these times, a priest was called upon to give final rites and to remain at the dying’s side during their final hours. These questions gave a framework for understanding one’s role within their belief system, universe, and social circle. Though these questions might sound frank by today’s standards, death was seen as a normal, common part of life in the Middle Ages.

Where can you find it in popular culture?

Though this phrase was originally coined in the 1400s, it’s still very much a part of our world today. Authors, artists, and academics continue to ask this question. Most notably, Katy Butler published The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life. Recently, people are considering the difference between a good vs. bad death. 

Additionally, the rise of end-of-life planning as an industry indicates that more people are interested in planning for the end than ever before. Death is also often personified in popular TV shows and movies. For example, the theme of death acceptance plays a huge role in the Harry Potter series. Similarly, death is written as an actual walking and talking character in the show Supernatural. 

All of these instances of death, dying, and mortality show the way humans are still fascinated with death. Instead of a focus on death and religion, many modern people are looking for new ways to understand “dying well.”

As this definition continues to change, there are seemingly endless examples of death and dying in popular culture. Finding abstract ways to look at mortality and what happens when you die is a source of peace for many.

Death and What Comes After: ‘Ars Moriendi’ 

‘Ars moriendi’ is more than the art of dying. It’s also in many ways the art of living, and the art of preparing for death as a natural part of life. While it was created as a response to the Black Death, it became much more than that. 

This movement or genre reshapes the role of the church and loved ones in the process of death and dying. It also challenged people to evaluate their own views of death in uncertain times. 

Today, we have our own ‘ars moriendi’ or art of dying. Things like hospice, palliative care, and end-of-life planning are still very much a part of modern death and dying rituals. These were largely shaped by ‘ars moriendi’ and this genre of Christina literature. Though it seems like these ideas exist firmly in the past, they’re very much present in all aspects of society as we know it. 


Sources

  1. “Ars moriendi.” Library of Congress. LOC.gov
  2. Thomas, Simon. “Ars moriendi-The art of Dying.” Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project. Bav.Bodleian.ox.ac.uk.
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