Learning How to Die

Q&A with Stanley Hauerwas

by Sarah Stoneking

Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School. In 2001, he was named by Time Magazine “America’s Best Theologian,” the same year he delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectureship at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Hauerwas has written prolifically across disciplinary lines: from political theory to medical ethics, always in search of reflection on the character of a Christian life. His books dealing with medical ethics include Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church and Naming the Silence: God, Medicine and the Problem of Suffering. Sarah Stoneking interviewed Dr. Hauerwas on death and dying well.

Sarah Stoneking: I’ll start off by asking you, very generally, what is a good death?

Stanley Hauerwas: I’m 70 and I think about death everyday. I think it’s a great gift that God gives some of us — to grow old in a way that our deaths are unavoidably present. That’s a gift: that you get to live into your dying. That is part of what we would like to have possible for everyone. In America death has unfortunately become associated with: you’re dead when your doctor can no longer do anything for you. I want to think that our deaths can be claimed as part of a community of friends that are able to be present to us as we die. That means that you don’t have to do everything necessary to keep your body alive.

What would that look like in a congregation?

Presence, first and foremost. Presence and prayer. Too often we substitute technology for presence. Death scares us. We don’t want to be around it. But one of the gifts we give to one another is to be present to one another as we die. Learning to die is like everything else: it’s learning. You need to see people do it.

There was a whole tradition of ars moriendi, the art of dying. I think that we have to recover something like that. As I was saying, you have to be taught how to die. And somehow it got lost. I don’t know why. It’s always been at the heart of Christianity that we are taught to die in a way that we can be happily remembered. It’s a lovely thing to be happily remembered. I hope I’m going to die in a way that my friends can happily remember me.

How would that preach?

Well, it needs to be preached. People never hear sermons about dying. Learning how to make that not a forbidden topic would be a very important thing for the contemporary church. When I lecture to lay audiences, I ask them how they want to die. For people in our society the response is fairly consistent: they want to die quickly, painlessly, in their sleep, and without being a burden. They want to die painlessly, in their sleep, and quickly because when they die they don’t want to have to know they’re dying. So now they ask physicians to keep them alive to the point that when they die they don’t have to know they’re dying – and then they blame physicians for keeping them alive to no point.

In The Book of Common Prayer in the Great Litany, there’s the prayer, “save me from all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared.” In the Middle Ages, what people feared was not death, they feared God. They prayed to be saved from a sudden death because they wanted to have time to repent and have their lives appropriately positioned to face God. Now we just fear death.

Could you trace the history of how Western society has approached viewing medicine and its relationship to death?

I think medicine had offered up until the last hundred years or so, basically, care. You probably were not going to get much better but we could teach you how to live with your illness. Now medicine, allegedly because of scientific breakthroughs, is about cure. That puts an extraordinary pressure on physicians to do more than they can. The fact of the matter is, you’re not going to get out of life alive, but people want to ask of physicians more than they can deliver and it’s very tempting to try to deliver that.

The idea of creating a dialogue on what patients should expect and should not expect in medicine is very interesting. Many current writings and commentaries on medicine tend to deal with the ethics of care for physicians, they don’t approach the ethics of being a patient.

Right, I think so-called medical ethics has put far too much emphasis upon the physician and not the patient. I think patients need to be trained to know what to ask for. And just like we need to learn how to die, we need to learn how to be sick. Currently people, I think, ask far too much out of physicians.

You co-wrote a book, Growing Old in Christ. Do you think you’re growing old in Christ?

I’m trying to grow old among Christians who are helping me to grow old in Christ. I praise God for making that possible. The essay Laura Yordy and I wrote in that book on friendship and what it means to grow old within friendship is crucial for me. Friendship not only with other elderly people but across generations. It’s very important to have friends across generations. Christians, like anyone, do not want to die. Life is a wonderful gift that we are obligated to live out in service to our fellow brothers and sisters. But it’s not the overriding good. Friendship with God is the good that should form both how we live and how we die. When we learn how to be friends with God we learn something about what it means to die well.


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