Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Making a Good Death
Drew Gilpin Faust, in her book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, gives the history of the concept of "making a good death," tracing it to the late Middle Ages. I had not been aware of its roots, but having read the Gratz family letters I was already well-acquainted with the idea.
"Making a good death" necessarily meant resigning yourself to your imminent demise. This acceptance was key because your family could infer from it -- even if you could not speak -- that your conscience was clear and you were ready to meet your God. If you could speak it would be to calm and comfort your loved ones. By 1800 in America this idea permeated Protestantism and Judaism as well.
Here is Maria Fenno's description of the deathbed of John Ward Fenno, her older brother and the head of the family: "[He] called all of us, embraced us and pressed our hands and as well as he could begged that we would not be distressed. Towards evening he sank into a kind of slumber from which he never awoke but breathed his last sigh at about one o'clock in the morning, so calmly it seemed impossible."
John Ward Fenno was twenty-three years old but did what he could to convince his brothers and sisters that he loved them and was leaving them with confidence in his hopes of heaven.
A more formal description of a good death, that of Miriam Gratz, Rebecca's mother, is from her obituary by Joseph Dennie, the editor of the Port Folio: "...Always obedient to the will of heaven she saw the approach of death with serenity and meekness, and met his cold embrace without a struggle. In contemplating the steadfast virtue which supported her at that awful moment we may all find reason to exclaim, 'Let me die the death of the righteous and let my latter end be like hers'" (Port Folio, January 1809).
The Gratz sisters, particularly Rebecca, had been part of the social set around Dennie and his publication. Dennie knew Rebecca personally and had probably met her mother. As was the custom of the day, he recounted a "good death" in his obituary, but judging by everything else known about Miriam Gratz and the special emphasis Dennie placed on her last hours it is likely that she did die tranquilly.
But what happened when a person did not?
The family probably covered it over, making up last words and final farewells, and no doubt coming to believe the tale themselves over time. Because of that there are few descriptions of NOT making a good death. One survives in the Gratz correspondence because a Mrs. Morton had no family and the friend who cared for her told the story. In 1808 Sarah Gratz wrote to Rebecca:
"I never heard of a more agonizing death bed than poor Mrs. Morton exhibited. She was unconscious of approaching dissolution till almost the last moment and so entirely unprepared and unwilling to leave this world that when her sight failed and the conviction that the hand of death was on her, she uttered the most dreadful shriek and begged one more struggle should be made to save her. Even her last sigh breathed a prayer for life and the fear of death inflicted anguish on her far beyond description."
This is pretty hair-raising and not a memory anyone would want to leave. Sarah concluded, "Tis the duty of every rational being to reflect on death and so to regulate our actions as to divest it of half its terrors." The concept of a "good death" provided a script for playing one's last scene with dignity, but Sarah acknowledges that to be ready to act the part you had to prepare for it.
Note: Mrs. Morton was not a great sinner fearful of hellfire. She was a victim of tuberculosis, the "delusive" illness. As the disease reached its terminal stage, the patient, who knew very well the week before that she was seriously ill and in danger of death, lost touch with the reality of her situation. She might start talking about her plans for the next summer or trying to do tasks which were well beyond her strength. Many victims of the disease died without realizing their plight or, like Mrs. Morton, realizing it only at the very end. Tuberculosis had a special horror for families because it did not permit many of its sufferers to "make a good death."
(Maria Fenno's and Sarah Gratz's letters are both from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society.)