Skip to content

Conscious Dying: A definition and brief history by Dr. Martha Watson

2012 January 29
by admin

I was very interested to see this on Dr. Martha Watson’s website. It is very eloquent and an excellent summary of the idea behind conscious dying. Here is a link to the website: And for your convenience, below is the text only version.

Conscious Dying,
by Dr. Martha Watson

How can dying become a conscious act? When the person facing terminal or life-threatening illness chooses to use the dying process as a way toward a more present and loving opportunity for spiritual awakening, that person has entered the path of conscious dying. This choice offers a chance for profound healing not only to the person facing death, but also to the family, loved ones, and caregivers involved.

This idea is familiar to those who study and practice Eastern traditions such as Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. These traditions, along with the shamanic healing traditions practiced by indigenous peoples worldwide, have long provided instruction and teachings on the art of dying with grace and consciousness. Even older Western traditions, such as the Medieval Christian literature “Ars Moriendi” (Art of Dying) contained spiritual and practical guidance for the dying and those around them. Sadly, this wisdom tradition was brushed aside in the late 18th century, and has only regained attention during the last 30 years.

As a result, the very idea of conscious dying has become almost foreign to our modernized, Western world view. Death and dying as a natural process has been virtually denied over the past 100 years. It was common practice in hospitals to tell the dying person, “You’re looking better today.” Family members were advised to withhold information about the patient’s impending death, so as not to “upset” the dying loved one.

Fortunately, by the late 1960s this began to change. In 1967, the first modern hospice was founded in London by Dame Cicely Saunders. The classic work On Death and Dying was published by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. The year 1974 saw the founding of the first hospice facility in America. It was located in New Haven, CT. At long last, people were beginning to embrace an open and honest approach to death and dying.

The modern hospice movement was strongly grounded in spirituality at its beginning, but the American branch needed the financial support of government and insurance company reimbursement in order to survive. This lead many hospice organizations to reduce their provision of chaplaincy and spiritual services, although there remain many exceptions. Although the hospice movement as a whole has become secularized, each hospice enterprise continues to express the spirituality of the individuals who are part of that facility.

Nevertheless, the hospice movement has brought about huge changes in the way death and dying are perceived in our modern culture. Spearheaded by the work of Kübler-Ross, the hospice movement has brought death and dying out into the open. Death can now be discussed, and psychological issues are openly addressed. This means that families are helped to find closure, patients are supported in “finishing business,” and healing and reconciliation can happen for all concerned.

If we continue to view ourselves as “just” body and mind, death will always appear as a bad situation, to be avoided at all costs. But we are more than “just” body and mind. We are multifaceted beings, human and divine, perfect and imperfect, absolute and relative – all co-existing at all times as a whole. Because the dying process means we must give up our body and mind, the spiritual and soul aspect of our beings must come forth as the essential nature of who we are.

Relieving the physical and psychological distress of the dying person, so that these needs do not overwhelm the spirit, transmutes the dying process into a tremendous opening for spiritual growth. And while it cannot be predicted in advance, the miraculous process of healing may take place even on a physical level. A person confronting death, by bringing consciousness to a “terminal” illness or life-threatening condition, may find themselves healed in body and mind, as well as soul.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.