Time was, when life was hard, death wasn’t so bad, especially if you believed, as so many did, that your recompense for a life of unrelieved misery and privation here below was the reward of unlimited bliss up there. The prospect of paradise makes a lot of sense when you inhabit a vale of tears. And it makes it easier to die, too, both for the dying person and for those around the deathbed. “He’s gone to a better place,” people used to say to each other knowingly, comfortingly. And they felt the justice of it, truly believed it, even looking forward, somewhat, as they said it. But what was once an attractive offer has lost its allure. We lead lovely, comfy lives, now. We’d rather stay where we are, thank you.
It’s the lack of any inclination to contemplate anything better that accounts for attitudes to death today. Call it denial if you want, but I think you’d be missing the point. It’s more the case that we’re having such a lovely time playing out with our friends that we simply don’t hear Mum calling us in for our tea.
You feel the aftermath of this as a celebrant, sometimes, when you go to visit the freshly bereaved. You walk into shock. Paralysed disbelief. It makes no sense to be planning a funeral. Why, he could just be upstairs. The absolute absence of the dead person has yet to begin to make itself felt. And what I often think, as I sit on the sofa while everybody tries to get their head around the presence of this extraordinary stranger, is ‘I wish he was upstairs’. Nothing would better translate unreality into altered reality and enable everyone to get their heads around it.
Dying is bad and it’s getting worse. Now that the priests can tempt no more than a few of us with a next instalment that’s going to be even better, the government dangles before us, instead, the allure of the good death and the new Personal Care at Home Bill. I have my reservations about this good death myth and about the desirability of dying at home. It’ll suit a few of us, for sure. But drawn out decrepitude and protracted expiration call for very expert attention. Nursing homes and hospitals are exactly the right places to be.
In summary, therefore, dying at home can be overrated; being dead at home cannot.