Let’s talk about Death
Benjamin Franklin famously said, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. Interesting, then, that as a society we talk so much about taxes but not very much about death. Why is this? Too depressing? Too morbid? Perhaps some superstition that if we talk or think about it we will make it happen. Or maybe we instinctively feel that it will get in the way of the important business of living.
This week is Dying Matters Awareness Week. The Dying Matters Coalition was established in 2009 by the National Council for Palliative Care in order to, ‘change public knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards death, dying and bereavement.’ The underpinning thought is that we should all talk and think about death and dying more because, believe it or not, it is good for us and will go a long way to improving our lives.
Personally, I think about death quite a bit – I work as a funeral celebrant and so I encounter bereaved people and listen to the stories of those who have died on a day to day basis. It always feels like a privilege and I count myself fortunate. I chose to work in this field partly as a result of losing my father at a relatively young age and finding the ritual of the funeral healing. A life marked and honoured.
Coming closer to death and dying and reflecting on it, I find it interesting that it is at once intensely personal and yet uniquely universal as Franklin so sagely noted. In fact, many people find ways to avoid taxes but no one, as yet, has managed to avoid death. Is it not one of the few things we can say with certainty we all share and yet at the same time is a solitary journey? I find this fascinating and I know I am not alone. It is a defining aspect of our human existence and, for me, a key to our humanity. By that I mean that it marks us both as a unique individual and as exactly equal to all other members of the human race.
Can we also say, therefore, that the more we bring an awareness of death into our consciousness the more we become aware of our status as both the only person who directly experiences our unique place and time and, in this way, equal to all others? My experience is that it does and along with this comes also a tenderness towards others and a sense of responsibility to live my life consciously and creatively. To ‘do a William Morris’ and make it beautifully useful. Can I live long enough to succeed, or is it more about the process than completion? Indeed, there are many prized works of art that are unfinished.
What are the results of not thinking or talking about death? Well, broadly speaking we are unable to plan adequately for it.
The Dying Matters website states that “81% of people have not written down any preferences around their own death, and only a quarter of men (25%) and just over one in three women (35%) across England have told anyone about the funeral arrangements”.
This means that others’ have to make difficult decisions on our behalf and there is a strong possibility that the choices they make for us and about us are not the ones we ourself would choose.
Also, by not thinking about dying, we kind of assume it won’t happen to us, at least, not until some way off future and this seems to bring an innate sense that we will always have more time. But, as a wise man once said to me, “Time and tide wait for no man”. Years pass us by and there is so much we put off. In this way we run the risk that when we die we will regret wasted opportunities.
Recently I watched the short film When I Die – Lessons from the Death Zone about Philip Gould whose memoir of the same name has recently been published. In it he describes how, once he had begun to accept the fact that he would soon die, “it [life] gained a quality and a power it had never had before”. He also stated that, “I knew my purpose here, now, was to give as much love as I could to the people who mattered to me”.
I don’t believe he was explaining this as some new purpose that had only just occurred to him — I am quite sure that this was his purpose all along; rather, he was speaking from a new clarity, now that other concerns had fallen away.
Thinking about dying, therefore, and sharing our thoughts with those we trust, can bring us clarity with regards to to our purpose and energy to accomplish that purpose and empathy towards others. Let’s do it now, before we’re ‘late’ and it is too late.Tagged in: Benjamin Franklin, chaucer, coffin, death, dying, Dying matters, Dying Matters Awareness Week, funeral, funerary, georgina pugh, judith kerr, morbid, Philip Gould, pugh, solitary journey, When I Die – Lessons from the Death Zone
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