The Art of Dying, or Ars Moriendi

Pride of the spirit is one of the five temptations of the dying man, according to Ars moriendi.

Pride of the spirit is one of the five temptations of the dying man, according to Ars moriendi.

In the book, This Republic of Suffering, by Drew Gilpin Faust, the topic of the Good Death begins on page six. This topic, not unknown to American Civil War soldiers in the mid-nineteenth century, had its foundation in the ars moriendi, or “The Art of Dying,” two Latin texts that reached back to fifteenth-century Catholicism. In fact, this art of dying the ‘good death’ had become the core for modern Christian practice by the mid-nineteenth century.

Civil War soldiers were, in fact, better prepared to die than to kill, for they lived in a culture that offered many lessons in how life should end. But these lessons had to be adapted to the dramatically changed circumstances of the Civil War…Dying was an art, and the tradition of ars moriendi had provided rules of conduct for the moribund and their attendants since at least the fifteenth century: how to give up one’s soul “gladlye and wilfully”‘ how to meet the devil’s temptations of unbelief, despair, impatience, and worldly attachment; how to pattern one’s dying on that of Christ; how to pray. Texts on the art of dying proliferated with the spread of vernacular printing, culminating in 1651 in London with Jeremy Taylor’s The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying. His revision of the originally Catholic ars moriendi proved not just a literary achievement but an intellectual triumph that firmly established the genre within Protestantism.

Taylor’s rendition of the ars moriendi as well as the original documents had, by the time of the Civil War, become so commonplace that preachers used them in sermons, popular health books combined the expanding insights of medical science with older religious conventions about dying well, and popular literature carried out the theme in scenes such as the death of Dickens’s Little Nell, Thackerey’s Colonel Newcome and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Eva.

By the time of the Civil War, the theme of the Good Death inspired songs, stories and poetry for and about the Civil War. As the war raged on throughout this country, the concept of the good death had burst its religious boundaries and had become part of respectable middle-class behavior throughout both the North and the South.

This long-held and widely-spread belief system about death is why, according to Faust, a soldier who died anonymously and suddenly in the heat of battle confounded all ability to understand why this death might be a “Good Death.” The Good Death was to take place at home, among loved ones who could witness the faith of that dying soul. To compensate for this denial of closeness between soldier and family at the time of death, other soldiers, chaplains, military nurses and doctors conspired to provide dying men and their families with as many of the elements of the “conventional Good Death” as possible. This meant that other individuals on the battlefield became surrogates for the family when a soldier died.

This unusual and heartrending change in familiar patterns of family care and death care in the 1860s led to the composition of several songs and poems. One, titled “Be My Mother Till I Die,” included the lines sung by a nurse:

Let me kiss him for his mother,
Or perchance a sister dear;
Farewell, dear stranger brother,
Our requiem, our tears.

This song was so widely popular that it called for a response, titled “Answer to: Let Me Kiss Him for His Mother,” which expressed gratitude for the women who cared for a family’s loved one far from home.

Bless the lips that kissed our darling,
As he lay on his death-bed,
Far from home and ‘mid cold strangers
Blessings rest upon your head.

Songs such as this and their responses did not belong to one side or another in that war. They were national responses to the disruption of war, which — for all intents and purposes — was a disruption of the Good Death. Songs such as this and actions of others who helped soldiers die on the battlefield helped to maintain that traditional connection between the dying and their kin that defined the ars moriendi.

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