"The Good Death" by Ann Neumann. Cover photo courtesy of Beacon Press

'The Good Death': Hard to find, and religion's role may be to blame

(RNS) There is no such thing as a "good death." There is only a "good enough death."

So writes Ann Neumann in "The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America." A visiting scholar at the Center for Religion and Media at New York University and a hospice volunteer, Neumann takes a close-up look at end-of-life issues and how they are both helped and hindered by faith.

"Religion is most prevalent around the deathbed in our country," Neumann, 47, said in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "That is where it is resoundingly proven that we are not a secular nation."

"The laws, medical practices and corporate regulations that surround death and dying continue to be strongly influenced by religion, whether it is in the delivery of health care through Catholic hospitals, whether it is in the rituals that medical practice is infused with, or whether it is simply in the language that we find acceptable around the dying."

"The Good Death" by Ann Neumann. Cover photo courtesy of Beacon Press

"The Good Death" by Ann Neumann. Cover photo courtesy of Beacon Press

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

If "The Good Death" is anything, it is a call for people to examine their own wishes around end-of-life issues and decide what role religion -- either theirs or that of their caregivers -- will play. Religion, she holds, influences our ideas of quality of life and how far we are willing to go to preserve it.

READ:  A Bible you can wear on your heart, sleeve or lapel

Neumann has spent a good deal of time around the dying. Her first up-close experience as a caregiver was with her father's difficult, drawn-out death from cancer that left her and her family worn-out and overwrought.

In the aftermath, unmoored by her own grief and seeking a way to cope with the death she knew would someday come for her and her loved ones, she decided in 2007 to become a hospice volunteer. Her descriptions of her visits with her patients -- reading with them, drinking with them, but mostly just being present for them --  are among the most moving in the book.

In between she weaves in the history of death in America, from the front parlor to the back room of the nursing home. She chronicles the harrowing right-to-die cases of Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy CruzanTerri Schiavo and Jahi McMath, who remains in a coma in New Jersey, the only state that does not consider her legally brain dead, Bible verses hanging over her bed.

Neumann, reared a Mennonite and now a Catholic, looks at how quality of life is often sacrificed for sanctity of life, sometimes for religious reasons, by health care providers, families and religious leaders.

"We must examine the inequality and the discrimination that the church has built into its position on health care," she said. "The Catholic Church is so good at managing hospitals, at addressing patient care that we cannot say it is bad on the whole and yet the discrimination against women, the lack of autonomy provided to elders or to individuals like to Terry Schiavo -- these families that are put in these difficult positions should be supported by their church. They should be able to make their own decisions."

READ: Arizona high priestess guilty of ‘sexual healing’

But what about hope? In the book, Neumann echoes the writing of Adrienne Martin, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, who writes that hope is not always a good thing. It can lead to pain and suffering, both physical and emotional, and result in stretching out an illness in the hope for an unlikely positive outcome.

Ann Neumann is a visiting scholar at the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, where she is a contributing editor to the Revealer. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Bookforum, the Nation, and Guernica. This is her first book. Photo courtesy of Beacon Press

Ann Neumann is a visiting scholar at the Center for Religion and Media at New York University and the author of "The Good Death." Photo courtesy of Beacon Press

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

"It was an area of research that fascinated me because it did question the hands-down understanding we have that hope is always good," Neumann said. "Hope can be sustaining. It can get us out of bed. But it can also result in the very painful treatment of patients and lead to denial."

What's a country with a rapidly aging population to do? The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2050, one in five Americans will be 65 or older and have diverse ideas about end-of-life issues. A Pew Forum survey in 2013 found two-thirds of Americans believe there are some situations in which patients should have a right to end their own lives, while 31 percent say doctors should do everything they can to prolong life.

Start conversations with your loved ones, make your end-of-life wishes clear and know your rights, Neumann said.

"A good death is whatever a patient wants," Neumann said. "It is not up to me, to their legislators, to their priests, to their families. That is true informed consent. A good enough death is as close as we can get because humans are not perfect. We can get so much closer, but we will never have a perfect death."

(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for RNS)


  1. This is a good article. The dying person should be in charge of his own death. There’s a line between prolonging life and prolonging death.

  2. There us absolutely no reason religious beliefs ever have to factor in to ones healthcare other than the beliefs of the patients.

    Lately religious (largely Catholic) hospitals have been outright endangering patients in various situations because adherence to dogma supersedes medical ethics, professionalism and consent of the latent.

  3. “adherence to dogma supersedes medical ethics, professionalism and consent of the latent.”
    It is a question of ethics whether a doctor can facilitate the death of a patient. The choice of the patient is not the only issue.

  4. Any idea what A.M.A. says about it at this point?

  5. I take exception to the Pew polling.
    I have found (serving 60 fair booth days) that about half of the public thinks they are in favor of such a law, that is until they learn about the flaws in the laws that create new paths of elder abuse with immunity. Once they learn that a predatory heir may steer the signup process and then forcibly administer the lethal dose without oversight, they all said, “I am not for that!”.
    Anyway all of these Oregon Model bills have the same flaws that eviscerate flaunted safe guards.
    For example how many times have you nodded your head when the proponents declared that the lethal dose must be self-administered?
    Well, read the language of the law/bill and you will find that there is no means provided to insure that marketing point. For example “self-administrate” was mentioned 6 times in the 20 page Colorado HB 16-1054 and yet there was no means provided to confirm that the lethal dose was forced on not.

  6. So exactly what is your solution to the problem of people living in unbearable pain, not wanting to drain their estates, and wanting desperately to die?

  7. The Catholic Church has never considered your life to be your own. As if that weren’t bad enough, with breathtaking arrogance, they cliam to act as (the one and only) God’s authorized agent. Too bad, if you worship another god(s), or simply want to be left out of their fraudulent scheme. You simply have no standing in the matter. As for suffering – you must bear it! They would rob you of everything, and see it as their duty. Should anyone doubt that evil exists, they need look no farther than the Church and watch it creating its zombies.

  8. “There’s a line between prolonging life and prolonging death.” I couldnt have said it better myself – thanks Jim

  9. If you look at the data from Oregon, pain and fear of pain are a factor in only about 1/5 of cases in which patients elect assistance in dying. The more common impetus isn’t pain, it’s things like quality of life, autonomy, fear of lack of control. Often this is fueled by bad medical practice (i.e., poor management of symptoms, failure to provide aggressive pain control,) etc. Religious leaders/representatives also bear responsibility, and should be far clearer in what the faith actually teaches. In Catholic tradition, e.g., there is no need for anyone to die in pain–pain relief is ALWAYS morally licit, even if it is anticipated to shorten a person’s life. Catholics need to beware the valorization of suffering, and also should really step up the game of accompanying the dying instead of abandoning them. This won’t address every patient’s fears, but could help in many cases.

  10. Lisa,
    You sound reasonable, but how can you justify the fear of hell, which the Church has deeply implanted in its followers as penalty for disobedience? What relief can you suggest for the reality of loss of control? Emotional suffering is just as unpleasant as physical distress. Finally, who shall sit in judgment? I have an absolute right to decide for myself, unencumbered by those who follow a particular god or philosophy. Let them keep it to themselves and go their own way.

  11. I agree with you, as a practicing physician I have seen how the family of an elderly insist on prolonging the agony and death of their loved one. Religiosity I suspect is at least partly responsible for their decision to prolong suffering.

    Ahmed Mir

Leave a Comment