ON HIS deathbed, St Athanasius, the fourth-century Bishop of Alexandria, is alleged to have responded to the physician who was certain that his illness was nothing serious: “What good luck! I’m dying in good health.” UK government health policies over the past decade echo Athanasius, emphasising the quality of later years over their quantity. Dying in good health is not just about the physical; it also has significant emotional, relational, and spiritual dimensions.
How apt, then, that death and the quality of dying are the themes of this immensely practical and readable book by Professor John Wyatt. The author is a retired neonatologist and notable commentator on the moral conundrums raised both at the beginning and the end of life.
In this concise offering, Professor Wyatt combines the wealth of his medical experience with longstanding Christian faith to provide reflective and thought-provoking insights into the process of dying in consideration of the question “What constitutes a healthy death?”
Written primarily, but not exclusively, for a Christian audience, this book refuses to be pigeonholed. It is a fascinating smorgasbord of information, advice, reflection, and study. It includes very practical advice for the dying, for carers, and for relatives. Quotations from a wide range of historical and contemporary sources are used effectively to emphasise themes and provide a personal touch to connect the reader.
There are historical perspectives on Christian attitudes to death and dying. I was particularly intrigued by the ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”). Wyatt considers how these 15th-century medieval documents provide 21st-century Christians with a framework to enhance the quality and positivity of the process of dying.
In two subsequent chapters, he provides aids to study and reflection on the theme of death. The first is a reflection on the words of Jesus during his Passion, which would make excellent material for a Lent Course. The second is a helpful Bible study on 1 Corinthians 15.
Athanasius of Alexandria once said: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” Back, then, to the ars moriendi.
The Revd Professor Nick Goulding is Professor of Pharmacology and Medical Education at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry.
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