The fluffy myth of the good death

Charles No Comments

Farrah Fawcett, Charlie’s Angel star in the 70s, she of the much copied hairstyle, wants to die on camera.

She was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006. The camera has been rolling since then. It has captured highs, like when the tumour is briefly found to have disappeared, and lows, such as when doctors push long needles through her rib cartilage and inject chemicals directly into her liver tumours. When they do that she winces and cringes in pain. One sequence follows her in a wheelchair, wrapped in a blanket, injecting herself with painkillers with a bowl on her lap to vomit into.

Why is she doing it? To highlight the need for early detection and more research. Shades of Jade.

Last Wednesday I went to the inaugural get together of a coalition of interested parties to promote public awareness of death, dying and bereavement. The idea is to get people talking about the D-Word. Only a third of us do. People die and no one has any idea even if they wanted to be buried or cremated. It’s quite common. If we are more open about death, so the theory goes, the less frightened we shall be, the more accepting of its naturalness. The purpose of the coalition is “to make a good death the norm”.

Talking about things always beats not talking about them. We are presently lost for words when talking to dying people, their partners and families, and we are almost as clueless when talking to the bereaved. We are all helpless bystanders of one another’s catastrophes. Pathetic, really. Yes, something ought to be done. We all nodded. We’ve thought this many times.

And yet, and yet… There was something about the bright-eyedness of this assembly of some pretty high-powered people that made me begin to reconsider. That process was accelerated when the marketing man got up to speak. Someone spoke of circles of life and I could only think of downhill trajectory, crash and burn.

Who’d want to talk about death any more than they have to? Making a good death the norm can’t be made to happen by happy straplines, only by superior analgesia. The good death is an invention of the generation that used to wear flowers in it its hair.

We have a duty to talk about death. But it’s a puritanical and an invidious duty. Because the chances are that our own death will be, in Betjeman’s words, “A losing fight with frightful pain / Or a gasping fight for breath.” We know that. Ask Farrah.

Yes, it is grown up to talk about our own death. It is also grown up to know what we’re talking about. But there’s really not a lot to say.

Spit it out, close your mind and crack on. We have much to be frightened of. Que sera…

However you spin it, death is pants.


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