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7 February 2022

Frank and honest talk about death is considered a taboo in many cultures. People avoid talking about death; they want instead to celebrate the goodness of the present life. However, death is—sooner or later—inevitable.

In the late medieval Europe, ars moriendi (the art of dying) was a common genre of Christian edification literature. The genre was encouraged by the common occurrence of unexpected death, especially against the backdrop of many epidemics, such as the Black Death.

The literature was popular until the Baroque era, when it was replaced by ars vivendi, the art of living, which promotes ideas often closely related to enlightenment humanism.

From a Christian perspective, we don’t have to put ars moriendi in opposition to ars vivendi. Thus, Moses prayed, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). Paul urges us to look carefully at “how you walk… making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16).

Against the fear of death, John Calvin even stated positively that “no one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection.” To be able to live well, one has to master the art of dying well. What are the most important aspects or elements of the late medieval ars moriendi?

The ars moriendi usually begins with the praise of death. Death is not something to be feared but something beautiful when it is related to the providence of God. One of the most beautiful ars moriendi set in music is the Cantata 106 “Actus tragicus” by Johann Sebastian Bach.

After a mournful yet comforting sonatina with two recorders, viola da gambas, and continuo, the opening chorus starts with the praise of death:

God’s time is the very best time.
In him we live, move and are, so long as he wills.
In him we die at the right time, when he wills.

Death is, of course, not beautiful in itself; however, when seen from the perspective of divine time and season, death has been made beautiful in its time (cf. Eccl. 3:1–2, 11). Bach made this beauty apparent in the opening chorus of his cantata when he added a celebrative nuance.

Other elements of late medieval ars moriendi are the five temptations that torment a dying man. These are unbelief, despair, impatience, vainglory, and avarice.

A dying believer would be tempted to forsake his true faith in God until he falls into despair. In his sermon on dying, Martin Luther wrote against these temptations: “It is grace and mercy / that Christ takes your sin from you on the cross / carries it for you and strangles it / and that you firmly believe and have in front of your eyes / do not doubt it / that means looking at the image of grace and form it within yourself.”

The third temptation that besets a dying man is impatience. The remedy against this temptation is to meditate on the patience of Christ, who invites the dying man to follow him.

To overcome the fourth temptation of vainglory, one must acknowledge one’s own sinfulness while humbling oneself to seek after divine compassion.

Finally, the remedy against the temptation of avarice (in modern sense: obsession) consists of preparing the dying person to part with things in the present world, not only one’s wealth, but also one’s family and loved ones. To help him, the dying person is encouraged to perceive the incomparable beauty and glory of Christ.

Here and now, humans also struggle with these five temptations. We are blessed if we are able to overcome these temptations, not only later, on our deathbeds, but even now. That’s how we understand ars moriendi as ars vivendi.

Another important aspect of the late medieval ars moriendi is the imitation of the passion of Christ. Jesus’s last words from the cross, “Into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk 23:46; cf. Ps. 31:5) were frequently quoted in this literature. In approaching death, the believer is invited to imitate one’s Lord in his peaceful surrender to the Father.

In the third movement of his Cantata 106, Bach includes what Jesus said on the cross to one of the criminals, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43) in a bass arioso as an answer for the surrendered prayer of the dying believer. This arioso is beautifully supported by the fourth stanza of Luther’s Nunc dimittis (the Song of Simeon):

With peace and joy I depart in God’s will,
my heart and mind are confident
As God has promised me:
death has become my sleep

Again, understood as ars vivendi, the Song of Simeon (cf. Lk 2:29–32) can prepare a mortal human to be ready to depart peacefully, if one has seen God’s salvation in Christ.

The last part of ars moriendi is the heavenly vision of God. Thus, Bach’s Cantata 106 ends with a doxology, which at the same time gives an eschatological hope for the dying believer:

Glory, praise, honour and majesty
be given to you God Father and Son,
to the Holy Spirit by name!
God’s strength makes us victorious
through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Death is not the last word but merely a quick transition to mystic union with God for those who believe in Christ. This union is the perfection of human praise and worship.

If we understand ars moriendi as ars vivendi, then the doxological practice can begin here and now as a foretaste of the coming heavenly glory. To live well is to be able to glorify and enjoy God while the opportunity is given.

Rev Dr Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean at International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta. Graduated from Heidelberg University (Ph.D in musicology, Th.D in systematic theology), he is an ordained pastor of Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia.