The Art of Dying Well: Finding Meaning in Death through Spanish Literature

At BYU’s Education Week, Professor Barbara Bonyata explained how medieval texts outlined an art to dying well. This concept still applies today and every day, as dying well relies on living well. 

PROVO, Utah (May 13, 2020)—It’s a subject we try our best to ignore. Death. We bury it deep. We deny. We cry. We question why it happens. But we don’t often ask how to do it well…

BYU Professor Barbara Bonyata, however, found that this was a question constantly on the minds of late medieval Latin friars. These friars even wrote an advisory text on the “ars moriendi,” or “the art of dying well.” Using this text and supplementary poems from medieval Spanish writers, Bonyata taught attendees at BYU’s Education Week what it meant to “die well” a few hundred years ago, and what that means for the still mortal audiences of today.

The “Ars Moriendi” was written at the Council of Constance in early 15th century Germany. It includes the following six sections: 1) “dying has a good side;” 2) five temptations faced at death; 3) questions to ask a dying man; 4) the need for the dying to imitate Christ’s life; 5) the role of friends and family; and 6) “the appropriate prayers to be said.” Bonyata insisted that these points are still applicable today, especially for those religious people who hope to “die right with God.” Essentially, the art of dying entails being spiritually prepared to die.

In the 15th century, this preparation was carried out mere moments before death, as people often practiced “deathbed repentance.” As such, the “Ars Moriendi” text included woodblock drawings so that the feeble, dying mind could comprehend the doctrine of death. Each block came in sets of two: a temptation and how to overcome that temptation. Bonyata described a woodblock that depicted the temptation to despair, with “demons surrounding the man who is in despair, trying to get him to think of all the sins he has committed. And then the next one would be the dying man, surrounded by Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, and the Savior on the cross,” showing that he can overcome his sins.

The art of dying, as explained in the “Ars Moriendi,” found new life in the arts when writers and poets expanded on the idea in their own works. One such poet was the Spanish soldier Jorge Manrique, who wrote “Coplas por la muerte de su padre,” or “Couplets for the Death of His Father.” In these couplets, Manrique brought up the concern that death comes so quickly, leaving little time to prepare. He wrote:

“Oh let the soul her slumbers break,

Let thought be quickened, and awake;

Awake to see

How soon this life is past and gone,

And death comes softly stealing on,

How silently!

Swiftly our pleasures glide away,

Our hearts recall the distant day

With many sighs;

The moments that are speeding fast

We heed not, but the past,—the past,

More highly prize.”


Time truly does fly, and it moves each individual unceasingly towards the same location. Manrique continued:


“Our lives are rivers, gliding free

To that unfathomed, boundless sea,

The silent grave!

Thither all earthly pomp and boast

Roll, to be swallowed up and lost

In one dark wave.

Thither the mighty torrents stray,

Thither the brook pursues its way,

And tinkling rill.

There all are equal; side by side

The poor man and the son of pride

Lie calm and still.”

Bonyata commented that this idea is always applicable regardless of the time period in which it was written. She said, “We all end up the same. One thing we all have in common in this room is we are all going to end up in death. Death is the great equalizer.” The sentiments expressed above—that life is fleeting, and we are all going to die—may seem depressing at a glance; however, Bonyata and Manrique offered a different perspective. The brevity of life and the surety of death give purpose. Manrique explained:

“Life is the running of the race

We reach the goal

When, in the mansions of the blest,

Death leaves to its eternal rest

The weary soul.

Did we but use it as we ought[?]”

In other words, life exists as an opportunity to do good, and death waits as a heavenly respite from the labors of life. Consequently, if life is so short, then there is an urgency to use it wisely—to do good now. Bonyata captured this idea in two Latin phrases: carpe diem and ubi sunt. Carpe diem is popularly known as “seize the day,” but it is somewhat tempered by ubi sunt, which means “where are those who went before us?” According to Bonyata, both of these ideas are present in Manrique’s poetry. She observed that essentially the idea is “to seize the day, but carefully,” to remember that we will die and to “not lose the opportunities that we have.”

In a sense, the art of dying well is truly the art of living well. It isn’t done merely moments before one’s soul departs from their deathbed—it is done each and every day, doing good with what little time we’ve been given in life. Bonyata affirmed, “That’s our goal, to live well, to live happily, to enjoy this life and be prepared. At any moment, when our life is taken from us, the lament will be just the loss of our presence, but not the loss of our souls.”

If one’s soul is prepared for death, having lived a good life, then death is not quite as frightening. Near the end of his couplets, Manrique wrote:

“Oh Death, no more, no more delay;

My spirit longs to flee away

And be at rest;

The will of heaven my will shall be,

I bow to the divine decree,

To God’s behest.”

A life well-lived finds relief, closure, and comfort in death. Bonyata similarly concluded, “There is a life beyond this. A life that is better…and beautiful…[but] this life is beautiful [too]. Seize this day. Seize this day and every day to come, until the final day, whatever day that be. Live your life in the art of living well, and prepare for dying well.”


—Cristiana Farnsworth (European Studies & Russian, 2021)