A Good, Painful Death


Passing in pain was long considered spiritually cleansing:

In earlier periods, many people believed that pain was a necessary component of a good death. Evangelical Christians, in particular, feared losing lucidity as death approached, as this would prohibit the person from begging forgiveness for past sins and putting his or hers worldly affairs in order before departing this life. For this reason, the physician rarely appeared at the bedside of a dying person because pain management was not required. Moreover, the general consensus was that it was inappropriate for a person to profit from another’s death. Caricatures depicting the greedy physician running off with bags of money after his patient had succumbed to his fate were not uncommon in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Over time, however, religious sentiments faded, and physicians began to appear more regularly in the homes of the dying. Doctors also became more effective at pain management. At the start of the Victorian period, doctors typically administered laudanum drops orally to patients. This process was imprecise, and sometimes not effective at all. This changed in the 1860s, when physicians started to provide their patients morphine intravenously. As new techniques emerged, people’s attitudes towards pain management in treating the dying began to change. Soon, a painless death was not only seen to be acceptable, but also vital to achieving a “good death.” The doctor’s place at the bedside of the dying was now commonplace.

(Image: The Doctor by Luke Fildes, 1891, via Wikimedia Commons)