Ars Bene Moriendi: Web Resources for Dying Well

Article excerpt

We Americans are particularly prone to this notion that we call control death. As someone once said, "Americans don't die; they underachieve."

--Virginia Morris, Talking About Death Won't Kill You

Busy modern information professionals don't like to think about death. Heck, we hate it when our computers run slow. Death would put a serious kink in our schedules.

Most of us have never witnessed a death. Yet, everyone does die, these days mostly in hospitals. Still, have you ever seen a body in a hospital? Usually, as soon as the patients breathe their last, they are whisked down the hall in special gurneys with false bottoms and smuggled out the back door to unmarked hearses. No dead guys here! It's bad for morale--and profits. No wonder we have come to expect that medicine has a miracle for everyone.

Our faith in medicine has extended so far that when people die young, we may be tempted to feel as if they were doing it on purpose. How dare they interrupt our equilibrium with their untimely demise? It is so upsetting and in such shockingly bad taste. Secretly, we wonder what they did to bring it on: Smoke? Drink too much? Neglect to exercise?

We often get uncomfortable in the presence of the elderly because they remind us of death. My Aunt Emy is 93 and has been bedridden for 3 years. She complains that she is were T of staring at the same curtains and counting the holes in the acoustical tile ceiling. She points out that all her friends have died and insists that she is ready to go, too. Yet she doesn't, mostly because she receives excellent care from her baby sister, Aunt Bert, 80 years old.

When Aunt Emy talks about her death, I feel awkward, like a Victorian schoolgirl listening to a lecture about the birds and the bees. I don't know what to say. I look at the wall. I make lame jokes. Ha ha. By discussing what is on her mind and what is inevitable for all of us, Aunt Emy violates a societal taboo.

Death has become so foreign to most Americans that it almost seems like we should, with skill and good luck, be able to beat it somehow. Rationally, we know this is not true. Still, to our emotional selves, death, in even very old age, seems tragic, an unfair punishment rather than the important, natural life event that it is.

Many of us in middle age now face the deaths of our parents and others of their generation. Even some of our siblings and colleagues may be suffering from serious illness. Chances are good that we will eventually provide care for a loved one at the end of his or her life and/or be the one in the hospital bed in the living room.

At least that is the way we hope we can end: peacefully and comfortably, in the company of people who love us. This way of leaving the world has been referred to as a "good death." But our modern medical system is geared toward keeping patients alive at any cost. Extraordinary medical procedures can cause pain and panic in the dying and cut them off from their last human contact.

To learn ars bene moriendi, the art of "dying well," we need to talk about death and plan for it. That way, when the time comes, k'ain ayin hara (the Yiddish incantation against the evil eye), we will know what to do, what to ask for, what options we have. The Web is a great place to learn about those end-of-life choices.

On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/onourownterms/

In 2000, Bill Moyers and WNET in New York produced a series that examined the way in which Americans usually die--in the hospital and alone--and contrasted that with their wishes. The Web site offers articles and links to high-quality resources for people who are dying and those caring for them, including financial advice, eldercare locators, and information about pain management. This is an excellent place to begin to plan for the end.

Directories and Portals

Start with the big sites for lists of links about dying. …