The Heart of the Hereafter can help to serve as a life review for the living. The stories can change not only how we view the end of life, but how we view life itself, and thus how we actively live our lives, particularly when we encounter the part of ourselves that is nothing but love.
The end of life is almost never pretty, but it can be almost overwhelmingly beautiful. This book features a moving selection of poetic and visual artworks that are based on the author’s experiences as an Artist In Residence in palliative medicine at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Emphasizing mystical and spiritual themes, the stories showcase the different types of love that emerge both in life and at the end of life. They range from philanthropy, self-respect (amour propre), familial love (agape and storge), and romantic love (eros) to various expressions of spiritual love including charity (caritas), grace, enlightenment, and transcendence. By engaging these themes, this book sheds valuable light on both the promises and the complications associated with constructing an ars moriendi, or guide to the art of dying, in our contemporary world.
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
The Heart of the Hereafter
Axis Mundi Books (John Hunt) 2014, 120 pp., $14.95, p/b.
Marcia Brennan is a professor of art history and religious
studies in Texas who has also been artist in residence in
palliative medicine at a cancer centre. This beautiful book
describes her experiences with 10 patients. She begins
by observing that we no longer have an Ars Moriendi as in
mediaeval times, hence much less idea of what a good death
consists of. The encounters are all moving in their own way,
as a result of which she writes a poem that is then illustrated
in a line drawing by Lyn Smallwood. The result is striking, and
many patients recognise that she has captured something
essential about their lives and loves. There is a touching
account of a couple who have been devoted to each other for
many years, and the husband is dying. The poem is entitled
The Other Side of the Waterfall and the last few lines are
Once we went high up in the mountains
And we were sitting together
On the other side of a waterfall.
As we sat there looking out of the falling water
I knew that this was what I always wanted.
And then I knew what it meant to be truly in love.
She ends the book by suggesting that ‘the end of life
represents a critical juncture that allows us to feel the
extraordinary intensity of the love that is in you and in me and
everyone. Such love both touches and transcends our lives,
just as it seems to continue with a life and power all its own.
~ Network Review, Spring 2015 No 117
BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of the Hereafter, Love Stories from the End of Life
Posted on January 26, 2015
by Janet Simpson Benvenuti
The Heart of the HereafterEach month I read dozens of books, articles and research reports about aging and healthcare, looking for tidbits of information that I can share with you, knowledge that will make your family life easier, healthier, more joyful. After 25 years in healthcare, it’s rare that I find a book that makes me pause and reconsider how we care for the dying. The Heart of the Hereafter, Love Stories from the End of Life, is one of those books.
Author Marcia Brennan, Ph.D., is a professor of Art History and Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She also is the Artist In Residence in palliative medicine at the renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Curious about her role, I anticipated that her book would describe anecdotally how art therapy can help a patient cope with their cancer diagnosis. Far from that, Dr. Brennan becomes our guide to life’s greatest transition – death – using art as the language to describe what words cannot.
Dr. Brennan briefly provides context about historical guides to the art of dying called the ars morendi, small printed books widely used in the 14th century to help people understand the dying process and acknowledge the moment between living and death, when an individual is suspended between worlds. “Sometimes when I visit people at the end of life,” she writes, “I get the sense that they are inhabiting multiple worlds at once…their physical appearance changes and they become extremely beautiful.” This state of grace, a moment of sustained peace and comfort, a convergence of the physical and spiritual, is captured through her stories about 10 patients, including a child, who are dying.
In “The Heart,” Dr. Brennan brilliantly demonstrates how she creates a complete summation of each patient’s life in a single poem, words that are transformed by a visual artist into a charcoal drawing. She places their reflection in the context of her deep knowledge about religion and art, centering each story around the different types of love that influence and transform a person’s life. The result is breathtaking, especially as each patient acknowledges the accuracy of her work, comforted by her understanding and a sense of accompaniment when facing the transition between worlds.
The news today is full of stories about how to navigate the last years of life. Housing choices, hospice care, insurance coverage and legal plans are mundane but necessary decisions that distract families from what truly matters: being present with loved ones in the last months and moments of their lives. Dr. Brennan, a stranger to the patients she meets, reminds us that our role is to listen and affirm, to remain open to whatever arises, to acknowledge that “the end of life is all about life itself and the many different types of love that we experience as human beings.” This book is a gift to us, one to re-read each time someone in your life approaches the end of their own.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Click this link to purchase The Heart of the Hereafter: Love Stories from the End of Life
c2015 Circle of Life Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.
http://dontgiveuponthem.com/ ~ Circle of Life Partners, Janet Simpson Benvenuti
I give this book five very large stars! Having for many years had a great interest in the subject of death and dying, I did at one time have a hunch that I would myself at some point be working with people who were facing death. But it in due course turned out that my particular calling in that area was not to work with people who were dying, but rather with those who were already dead but stuck in between realms. I was therefore delighted to come across a book written by someone who is actually doing this vitally important work in a hospice situation, and I sincerely hope that her fascinating experiences will inspire many others to follow in her footsteps. For one of my many complaints about present-day Western society is the tendency not only to endeavour to prolong life unnecessarily, but also to shut the reality of death away – as though one could escape from this reality by not thinking about it until absolutely forced to. This is bad both for the people who are coming to the end of their lives and for their families and all those around them
The author is a Professor of Art History at Rice University, Houston, who has also for the last five years been ‘Artist in Residence’ at the Department of Palliative Care and Rehabilitation in the Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas, and it is her work at this Center that is the focus of this wonderful book. However, although her subject is Art and although Art is renowned as a valuable form of therapy (I have a professional artist friend who painted her way through cancer), the medium that Professor Brennan uses with the patients is actually that of writing. One of the most important things for a dying person is to make sense of the physical life that is just coming to an end, and the therapy that the author has developed so effectively is to get the people with whom she is working to put down on paper the key points of their own life history.
Following her lengthy but interesting Acknowledgements and a beautiful Introduction, and preceding a compelling Conclusion, the middle part of the book consists of ten true, and varied, stories selected from over a thousand cases that the author has dealt with so sensitively. She explains that we have long since lost the early modern European tradition of circulating ‘ars moriendo’ (guides to the art of dying, which included commentaries and prayers to be said either by the dying person him or herself or by those around them), but that her idea is to replace these by an ‘ars vivendi’, and that to achieve this one needs to be completely open to whatever might arise at the bedside. She explains that “the artworks [i.e. the pieces that the patients write] can help to facilitate communication and promote a sense of mutual understanding between the person and the world around them.” Another important point that Marcia makes (quoting Dame Cecily Saunders, the founder of the hospice movement) is that the whole person must be treated since it is the whole person who is suffering, and I was particularly struck by the quotation from a senior physician of her acquaintance who commented that he could write a prescription to alleviate someone’s pain but not one to alleviate their suffering.
Though clearly written by an academic, those who are less academically inclined should not be put off by this. For one thing, the book is well worth buying for Lyn Smallwood’s illustrations alone! And for each of these Marcia has provided a very detailed and illuminating analysis. The author’s awareness of the fact that someone whose life is coming to an end may well be drifting in and out between this world and the next reminds me of a very dear friend, who died in the nursing home to which she had been admitted on account of suffering from dementia among several other things. Although Susie never really understood where she was, and although when one visited one would never know whether or not one would be recognised, the dementia did nothing to diminish her innate generosity of spirit and the warm welcome that everyone would always receive from her. She had been a great dog lover for all of her 85 years, and when we were mourning the death of a pet dog and thinking of looking for another one, my husband and I knew that Susie recognised us when she said “I’ve got fourteen dogs. You must go and have a look and see if there’s one that you’d like to have.” Then, on our next visit, she asked “Did you go and have a look at those dogs?” Well, many people would dismiss this as the “nonsensical ramblings of a demented old woman”, but my explanation was different. It is well known that people who are dying often communicate with loved ones who have already passed over, but Susie, who had been single all her life and never close to her C- and conservative, unspiritual, family, had owned numerous dogs in the past and it seems to me to be highly likely that it was they who were waiting to greet her on the other side. And Professor Brennan herself says “Sometimes when I visit people at the end of life, I get the sense that they are inhabiting multiple worlds at once. It is as if they are simultaneously experiencing multiple states of being.”
Just as I promised myself quite a while ago that I would re-read Sogyal Rinpoche’s ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ at least once every five years, my advice (N.B. to people of all ages!) is to buy this book, to read it right through slowly, as the author recommends, and then to put it onto a shelf – preferably a shelf that you look at regularly – ready to be picked up again at any moment. For we never know when death might strike someone close to us, and Marcia’s moving stories and reflections are at that moment sure to be of use and comfort. Then, when we sense that our own turn might be around the corner, we can read it yet again – or get someone else to read it to us if we ourselves are no longer capable of doing so.
Ann Merivale (author of ‘DISCOVERING THE LIFE PLAN – Eleven Steps to Your Destiny’, 6th BOOKS, 2012, ‘DELAYED DEPARTURE – A Beginner’s Guide to Soul Rescue’, 6th BOOKS, 2013, and ‘LIFE WITHOUT ELGAR – A Tale of a Journeying Soul’, 6th BOOKS, October 2014). ~ Ann Merivale, OMBS Blog
Death: Extract from The Heart of the Hereafter
Although it is a topic many people would prefer not to contemplate, death does come to us all. It is a natural part of the cycle of life and should ideally be as dignified as possible.
Throughout October, I am looking at and celebrating death on my blog. Here is a short extract from The Heart of the Hereafter: Love Stories from the End of Life,due to be published this month by Axis Mundi Books. It is a book that presents a combination of academic and professional expertise to help people explore the depths and the heights of love, spirituality, and creative expression, both in life and at the end of life:
Applied Aesthetics: Something to Read, Something to Do, Something to Hold Onto, and Something to Let Go Of
As this suggests, there is a clear and pressing need for a discourse that dignifies the death experience and brings it into life, something that we have too often lost sight of. In this volume, I am not offering a universalizing metanarrative regarding what might constitute a good death in contemporary culture. At the same time, my combined experiences as a scholar of the humanities and a practicing Artist In Residence in palliative care have provided a unique perspective from which to view these complex subjects. From this distinct vantage point, the issues appear in a different light. Perhaps above all, my experiences have repeatedly shown me that the end of life is all about life itself and the many different types of love that we experience as human beings.
Thus rather than adhering to a formulaic, predetermined script such as the ars moriendi, my combined scholarly, clinical, and artistic practices have reaffirmed the value of remaining open to whatever arises at the bedside, which is itself a highly liminal, individual, and emergent space. By remaining open to the open, I can be present, so that I can step out of the way, so that the artworks can emerge, so that they can reappear in the book that you are now reading. Just as the stories contained in this volume are ultimately not about death but about life itself, The Heart of the Hereafter appears far less like an ars moriendi than like an ars vivendi, a book on the art of life. And just as there can be no uniform script such as the ars moriendi because there is no one way to die, so too do the stories in this volume show that there is no one way to live. Instead, there are multiple ways to be alive, up to and including at the end of life.
When engaging these themes, I think of such an interwoven creative and clinical practice as a form of applied aesthetics. Notably, in its own way the ars moriendi can also be seen as an early example of applied aesthetics. At a time when personal agency was so very limited, the ars moriendi provided people with something to read if they could read and something to look at if they could not, as well as something to do, and something to hold onto. The ars moriendi also presented a vivid sense of connection between multiple realms of being, and thus, a tool for imagining sacred presences amidst extreme states of human suffering. The enduring appeal of such a project may well reflect people’s longstanding needs, hopes, and desires to feel a sense of accompaniment when facing the transition between worlds. As the historian David Morgan has commented regarding the power of such religious imagery, “The cultural work that popular images perform is often a mediating one, serving to bolster one world against another, to police the boundaries of the familiar, or to suture the gaps that appear as the fabric of the world wears thin.” The traditional ars moriendi represents a particularly powerful example of such popular devotional imagery, as it conjoins the sacred and the secular spheres to perform a practical function at the end of life, while also mediating between worlds and establishing order at a time when the world seems to be breaking apart.
From The Heart of the Hereafter: Love Stories from the End of Lifeby Marcia Brennan.
Marcia Brennan, Ph.D. is Professor of Art History and Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. ~ A Bad Witch's Blog, http://www.badwitch.co.uk/2014/10/death-extract-from-heart-of-hereafter.html
The Heart of the Hereafter can help to serve as a life
review for the living. The stories can change not only
how we view the end of life, but how we view life itself,
and thus how we actively live our lives, particularly when
we encounter the part of ourselves that is nothing but
love. The end of life is almost never pretty, but it can be
almost overwhelmingly beautiful.
What happens when a world-class art historian and a dying person encounter each other in a hospital room? A lot. Combining story, art, suffering, love, eros, glowing apparition, near-death experience, transcendence, hunting, prison, and the love of God, Marcia Brennan's new book weaves a vision of human life-in-death that is as beautiful as it is original and, quite literally, visionary. ~ Jeffrey J. Kripal,, Ph.D., J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies
In this moving account of her experiences as an Artist-In-Residence at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Marcia Brennan describes the transformative power of art for patients receiving end of life care. Dr. Brennan infuses her text with scholarly references, and demonstrates an undeniable brilliance in her ability to concisely and poetically capture the stories of these patients. Her gift also lies in her accessibility and openness during these sessions. While Dr. Brennan is unique, I believe the Artist-In-Residence model undertaken through COLLAGE can provide a valuable adjunct modality for other care provider teams to support cancer patients and their families. I suspect this book will be passed along among those in the cancer community. Dr. Brennan is forging ahead in an important and critical area of cancer medicine. ~ Jennifer Wheler, M.D., Assistant Professor, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Founder, COLLAGE: The Art for Cancer Network
Marcia Brennan, who is open to the open, offers a beautiful and reflexive analysis of her work as an Artist in Residence at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She succeeds, with skill and grace, to give words to the unspeakable and meaning to what, at times, can seem so meaningless to patients and their loved ones. She troubles problematic distinctions between religious and secular in the context of end-of-life care as she co-creates with patients sacred love stories. If love can be taken as an answer to death, Brennan breathes much-needed life into us all with her eloquent poetic prose. ~ Nathan Carlin, Ph.D., Associate Professor, McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics, University of Texas Health Science Center
A dear and moving set of stories that will elicit many a tear and smile along the way. Most of us have such little preparation, so little exposure to the issues that arise at the end of life. The author's call for an ars vivendi is what dying can be about: the call to live bravely, make strong choices, do no harm, make amends. Dying--and loving and living--have been glimpsed in ways that make dying more sacred, less scary, more profound. Read with your heart wide open! ~ N. J. Pierce, Founder, N. J. Pierce and Associates and Advisory Board member for Ronald McDonald House, Houston