Prior to the 19th century, the experience of death and dying was very much visible to the community and was a considered a very natural event that took place in the midst of one’s family, usually in the family house. This made speaking about death and dying a natural aspect of culture. But with the advent of modern medicine, dying came under the control of the doctor, was moved to the hospital, sequestered and institutionalized so that, as Philippe Aries puts in The Hour of Death, dying was “driven into secrecy.”
These developments tended to reduce dying to a medical event under the control of hard science, threatening to depersonalize the experience of life’s end, and largely discounted the inner crises of fear and anxiety in the face of death.In light of this challenging history, one of the greatest gifts of Five Wishes is to empower people to speak openly and freely among family and friends about the very personal and human dimensions of dying. In addition, it serves as a reminder to the medical community that each patient is a whole person, someone with a unique story to tell, defined by relationships and filled with hopes and fears. Five Wishes also responds to the dire need in our culture to humanize the experience of death and dying by bringing back into closer harmony hospital, home and faith community.
While we give thanks for the countless blessings modern medicine has brought to humanity, Five Wishes offers us a “prophetic” reminder that the dignity of each human person rests on things like faith, family and the need to love and to be loved.
Tom Neal, PhD is Academic Dean and professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana and author of the popular blog Neal Obstat.