Carlo Leget, Art of Living, Art of Dying. Spiritual Care for a Good Death. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017. 216 pages, $24.95
By John Gillman
In recent years, practitioners in palliative care and hospice have shown renewed interested in the ars moriedi (art of dying). Dutch author Carlo Leget has added his voice to that endeavor. Raised a Roman Catholic and watching patients, family members and staff in long-term care settings in Holland, Leget endeavors to revitalize and transform the traditional ars moriendi into contemporary language.
The ars moriendi originated at the height of the Black Death in Europe (1346-’53) when up to 60 percent of the population was wiped out. In his book, Leget sketches the five contrasting themes of the traditional ars moriendi. These appear as polarities between faith and loss of faith; hope and despair; charity and avarice; patience and impatience; and humility and complacence. Since the majority of the population in the Middle Ages was illiterate, the five temptations and the contrasting virtues were represented at that time by 10 images carved on blocks of wood. The temptation scenes include devils surrounding the dying person in bed, and the virtues are portrayed by accompanying angels, God, Jesus, and the saints in a contrasting scene.
Leget translates these traditional, religiously embedded portrayals into a new model of non-moral perspectives that speak to the modern world. Thus he reframes the polarities into a contrast between knowing and believing; remembering and forgetting; holding on and letting go; doing and undergoing; and oneself and the other. Successive chapters at the heart of the book address each of these in turn, though in inverse order: Who am I and what do I really want?, How do I deal with suffering? How do I say goodbye? How do I look back on my life? What can I hope for?
To engage patients with these questions, the chaplain must first create inner space, namely the ability to look at the whole person and to hear the multiplicity of voices and stories shared. Two concluding chapters apply the new model in a Roman Catholic perspective and a nonreligious perspective.
This book would be enhanced by including copies of prints from the wood blocks and by inviting an artist to create images for the new model Leget proposes. A fundamental question I have is to what extent can the traditional ars moriendi, a term that implies and is thoroughly embedded in a religious context, actually be translated into a secular, more humanistic context. To me, the connections between the two model are sometimes more tenuous than apparent. Furthermore, I would suggest that Leget’s new model, which is applied primarily to the art of dying in the book, be given more attention regarding its implications for the art of living.
John Gillman, Ph.D., is a CPE supervisor in San Diego, CA.