How do we really value those amongst us who are coming to the end of life? It would be easier to write “the end of their lives”, as if death were something that is not going to happen to me. About twenty years ago, an Irish newspaper article on longevity had to remind us that “mortality is, eventually, 100%”. Acceptance of personal mortality seems to come early in middle age. It is a shock, but it is also an awakening to reality. Some of us die in accidents or because illness takes us before we have completed what our society regards as our normal span, but we are living a lot longer than most of our forebears.
Death itself cannot be discussed freely in contemporary Western society. Our ancestors were far more comfortable with the idea of death: both the event itself and its rituals. Nowadays, we have a lot of euphemisms to describe death: “passed on”, “passed away” or, simply, “passed”. All of these are ways of not saying the obvious: that a person has died. Modern longevity has increased the tendency to avoid talking about death. Youth has become such an unquestioned value that the wisdom of age is largely discounted. The greatest compliment is to be told that “you don’t look your age”, so it is hardly surprising that there is a vast industry devoted to helping us look younger than our biological age. It is not surprising that many of us are so uncomfortable with our mortality that we cannot make a will.
Older people, therefore, are to be avoided, not least because their decline, which brings increasing dependence on others, is an unwelcome reminder of our own future. It is, therefore, impossible for our society to look steadily at death. This is an aspect of our broader disengagement from illness and from death: we do not have time and we do not wish to be disturbed. We prefer it when the chronically ill and the dying are kept out of sight. We have an unspoken assumption that all illness can be cured, and medical dramas on television give us nightly reassurance about the almost limitless powers of modern medicine.
Dying and death should be part of our everyday lives, rather than isolated and privatised. All of us want a good death and most of us want to die at home. We do not want to die alone, in pain or in the midst of strangers. Our society has the resources, even in a recession, to offer that to us. It is, as always, a question of priorities. Standards of care and accommodation can be improved. We have to ensure that our health services exist for the patients and that formulated policies are not subverted by existing systems.
“We only get one chance at death”, so let us get it right. In Ireland, unlike some other Western countries, we are very good at funerals. We have to rediscover our traditional acceptance of death itself.