Taiwan leads Asia in spiritual care to alleviate fear of death

Hospitals adding prayer rooms as fewer passing away at home

by Takeshi Nishide

Kyodo

Taiwan is a leader in Asia in spiritual care, integrating medicine and religion to ease the fear of death for terminally ill patients.

When a Japanese group of Buddhist priests and others recently visited a hospital for hospice care run by the Tzu Chi Foundation, an international Buddhist humanitarian organization, in New Taipei City, they heard a Buddhist sutra being quietly chanted in a room.

“A patient has passed away,” said a hospital official accompanying the group.

“Buddhism bans a dead person from being moved for eight hours after death,” said Cheng Chih Ming, a professor of thanatology at Fu Jen Catholic University. Buddhist sutras are chanted so those who have passed away can achieve a peaceful mind, he said.

Members of the group were surprised because sutra chanting is almost never heard at hospitals in Japan.

Special rooms for religious chants to console the dead are increasing at hospitals in Taiwan because the number of people dying in hospitals rather than at home has been increasing, as in Japan.

While Taiwan has a large population of Buddhists, Taoism, a native Chinese religion, is widely followed as well, according to Cheng. Chanting for Taoists begins even before a patient’s death.

The Japanese group was allowed to watch a Taoist ritual for dying patients at the university. In the demonstration, a man and two women played traditional percussion instruments and chanted at the foot of a doll, which was used in place of a dying person.

The ritual is designed to “eliminate the fear of death for a dying person and ease the sorrow of the bereaved,” the person who managed the ritual said.

Since 1995, National Taiwan University Hospital in Taipei has maintained a hospice facility where three Buddhist priests work to help terminally ill patients prepare for death.

“When I enter a room, a patient grabs my hand and asks for help,” one of the priests said. “My care begins when I grab back his or her hand.”

The female priest also said that as patients have different religious faiths, mental care services are offered in accordance with their beliefs, in the same way that chaplains do in Western society.

“If asked, I read the Bible,” she said.

In Taiwan, hospice care started at a Christian hospital in 1990, and there are more than 70 such facilities in operation today. Buddhist priests and other religious workers at hospice facilities are also increasing.

Dharma Drum Buddhist College, a leading institute that trains such workers, has been trying to fit hospice theories developed in the West, with care needed by Taiwanese so as to help patients meet a “good death,” said Huimin Bhikshu, president of the college and a top theorist on hospice care in Taiwan.

Huimin, who has a doctor of letters degree from the University of Tokyo, showed video footage of a man about 40 hours before his death.

The man, who appeared to be in his 40s, lay on a hospital bed and exchanged last words with family members. Huimin, wearing a priest’s robe, stood next to the bed, with a tender smile on his face.

Those present seemed to share Huimin’s belief, based on his long experience of integrating Buddhism with hospice care, that “death is natural.”