radically accepting finitude
As research shows more than half of Britons in relationships do not know their partner’s end-of-life wishes, Louisa Peacock examines why death is still so unspeakable – and discovers it wasn’t always this way
Death. It’s hardly the go-to topic of conversation with your partner after a hard day at the office.
But most of us go to such lengths to avoid talking about it – ever – with our loved ones that we may as well hand-on-heart believe that dying doesn’t actually happen.
Ironically, death is thrust in our faces almost every day – we hear about it on the news, we see it regularly in the movies or read about it in crime thrillers. But when it comes to the ‘everydayness’ of death, most of us would rather run a mile than confront the topic.
At the same time, we are obsessed with prolonging life – eating healthier, exercising harder, doing things to reduce stress – anything to put off the inevitability of death.
We will all die at some stage. All of us. That includes you. And your loved one(s). Nobody is immune. Death is as much a fact of life as breathing air is to survive. So why are we so at pains to ignore it?
More than half of Britons in relationships are unaware of their partners’ end-of-life wishes, according to a new survey by the Dying Matters Coalition, published on Monday as part of the charity’s ‘Awareness Week’. Just under a third of people have let someone know their funeral wishes.
This is a sobering thought. And yet ask yourself, honestly, do you really know what your partner wants when they die? A burial or cremation? The type of funeral? I’m pretty sure I’ve had the discussion with my husband, but I can’t really remember the outcome; which just shows how seriously I took it.
And what happens if one of you falls seriously ill, with no hope of recovery? Would you ever, as TV personalities Richard and Judy have revealed, make a suicide pact so that one of you assists the other one to die? Or would you let nature take its course? How do you know what you’d do if you’ve never even asked them?
Richard & Judy have made a ‘suicide pact’
Eight in 10 of the people surveyed by Dying Matters said people in Britain are uncomfortable talking about dying and death.
But why? It didn’t always used to be like this. As Satish Modi, a businessman, philanthropist and author, tells me, in the Victorian era in London, death was openly debated.
“In the late 19th century, the standard of life used to be much lower and people died much earlier. The time people had on this planet was very limited – the average life expectancy was around 48 [by 1901]. Nowadays people can expect to live into the high 90s. In the Victorian era, people understood that they had little time left to live a life, and they confronted and talked about mortality, operations and medicine as people around them died. Now the lifespan has increased, people don’t talk about it.”
Gradually, world events since the end of the Victorian reign have made death even harder to talk about, he explains.
“We’ve had two world wars between then and the present day; so many people have died. People were and still are very affected by these wars. People don’t want to talk about death.”
He adds: “Death is a very difficult area that we don’t want happening to us. It’s tough to come to terms with it. But we have to plan our death in the world in the same way we’d plan a holiday, for example.”
This week Modi is publishing a new book In Love with Death, encouraging modern-day citizens to begin an honest dialogue with dying and the “fascinating possibilities that an awareness of death can offer”.
And yet nowhere is people’s obvious lack of awareness of death so noticeable than in the current debate about assisted dying. As Dr John Troyer of the University of Bath, writing for The Conversation, says: “Our increasing longevity has given many more humans than ever before the opportunity to begin thinking about not only how a person wants to die but what kind of death it should be. And the tension between society and the individual is best shown by the current debate about assisted dying: the rights of the person to decide how and when to die and the counter argument that this will essentially undermine the moral fabric of society.”
Do you agree with assisted dying?
When I ask Modi why people are still so reluctant to talk about the unfortunate fact of death, he replies: “Death is not unfortunate. It is essential. If there was no death, just think about what would happen. For one thing, we wouldn’t be able to eat animals for meat, or birds.
“Life is on a lease. We have to accept that. And that means we must make life more meaningful,” he explains.
It sounds logical, sensible, even to think about death in this way, so that we can learn to fully embrace the lives we do have. A meaningful life, Modi argues, is one of compassion, philanthropy, generosity – of being “at peace” with yourself. It is not one of greed, always chasing after money or bigger things, but listening to your inner voice and morals, and acting upon them, he says.
Don’t think I haven’t spotted the irony of publishing this article within the ‘women’s life’ section of the Telegraph. And yet, if I am to understand Modi properly, to embrace death is to embrace life, and so actually the ‘life’ taxonomy is rather appropriate.
Still, Modi, an Indian-born Hindu, is (to me) describing somewhat of a spiritual journey that I must go on if I am to truly practice what he preaches. But it’s extremely difficult to carry out in practice, no?
“It’s very difficult,” he admits. “But we must learn to feel that our time on this planet is limited and come to terms with it. If we do, we will lead happy and more meaningful lives, not trapped by the problems in this world.
“Death is a great equaliser. Whether you’re born a prince or a pauper, we all have to die.”
‘Death is a great equaliser’
Dr Troyer continues: “What most people need is a reason or a little bit of encouragement to know that it is not weird or macabre to have these discussions. Part of my current job, it seems, is regularly telling people that it is completely normal to discuss and think about death.”
And he does indeed do just that. In Los Angeles last year, a group of academics and “professional death experts” (who knew?) met at a conference to discuss the reality of death, in particular, to encourage open dialogues about dying, preparing for death, death itself and what happens after death. Dr Troyer was one of several expert speakers at the UK ‘Death Salon’ event, which came to Britain last month.
“Perhaps more openness might also encourage more of us to sign up for organ donation since we understand our dead body is just that, and sharing our organs might not be that strange or intrusive or compromise who we are,” says Dr Troyer.
His best advice, it seems, is for us to start talking about death with our loved ones – and anybody who will listen. “Today, this day, and for the remainder of your days, talk about death with everyone you know and encourage them to do the same. Just remember, and here I am paraphrasing the philosopher Spinoza, discussing death is a meditation not on dying but on living life.”
Inspiring stuff. I know what I’m bringing up with my husband during dinner tonight. And for once it won’t revolve around what’s on the telly.
In Love with Death by Satish Modi is published in May 2014.