“If we want the deaths our lives deserve, we need to start talking about it,” advises a Times leader today.
Yes, it’s Dying Matters Awareness week and all Funeralworld is a-flutter with wheezes to “start the conversation” and encourage people to make a will, jot down their end-of-life wishes and their funeral wishes, even sort out their digital legacy.
As ever, the narrative from Dying Matters is that “discussing dying and making end of life plans remain a taboo for many people.” A possible problem here is that the stats supporting this statement offer comfort to the ‘deniers’ by showing them they are with the majority. Most people, after all, want to be where everybody else is.
And, by gum, the deniers constitute a big majority: 83% of people say they are uncomfortable discussing dying and death. 51% say they are unaware of their partner’s end of life wishes. 63% haven’t written a will. 64% haven’t registered as an organ donor or got a donor card. 71% of people haven’t let someone know their funeral wishes. 94% haven’t written down their wishes or preferences about their future care, should they be unable to make decisions for themselves.
If you reckon it important for people to get their death admin sorted, the present state of affairs is dire. But Dying Matters reckons that 400,000 more people aged 5-75 are talking about this unappetising stuff now than 5 years ago. This, surely, ought to be the headline figure. No one wants to feel left behind.
The difficulty in chivvying people to ‘get their shit together’ is, of course, that it brings them face to face with the terrifying fact of their own extinction:
A week? or twenty years remain
And then–what kind of death?
A losing fight with frightful pain
Or a gasping fight for breath?
There’s this comfy consensus among people in the death business that if you can bring yourself to confront your fear of dying your fears will magically melt away and your life will be gloriously enriched. It ain’t necessarily so. On the contrary, thinking about death can magnify the terror – why wouldn’t it?
For the end is likely to be disagreeable. Sherwin Nuland, in his book How We Die, wrote: “I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die. The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.”
Nuland wrote his book 20 years before his death in March this year. Did the contemplation of his own mortality induce equable acceptance? Here’s an extract from his obit in The Times:
It is not given to many of us to set the stage for our own demise. For the surgeon and medical ethicist Sherwin Nuland, author of the bestselling How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, the climax of his personal drama, with the audience watching intently and the curtain poised to fall, had been scripted years before and never needed revision. Yet when the time came, Nuland was reluctant to play the part, remaining in the wings, unsure of his lines, not ready to make his last entrance.
According to his daughter Amelia, he talked incessantly about what was happening to him. “I’m not scared of dying,” he told her, “but I’ve built such a beautiful life and I’m not ready to leave it.” Finally, as the end drew near, he seemed “scared and sad”, as if the morbidity of his lifelong preoccupation had, somewhat ironically, rendered him unable to confront the reality.
If only talking about it really did earn us “the deaths our lives deserve” and, in the words of Mayur Lakhani, chair of the Dying Matters Coalition, “enable people to become more comfortable in discussing dying, death and bereavement.”
But if not talk, what else is there?