Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Death Again

Here we go again - death's back, and causing an almighty fuss in some quarters. An obscure satellite pay channel no one had heard of screens what sounds like quite an interesting (in a grim kind of way) documentary about an 'assisted suicide' which happens to show the 'moment of death' - and all hell breaks loose. Some object that this glamorises euthanasia, and there might be something in that (though, without the row, no one would have seen the film), but that doesn't really epxlain the heat being generated. It would seem the 'moment of death' really is the ultimate taboo - a taboo endorsed and entrenched by standard hospital practice, which does its best to bar family from the deathbed. If you have the misfortune to die in hospital, you'll be in the company of a nurse you don't know who'll be addressing you by your Christian name (or someone else's) - great! Once you're safely dead, your family will be telephoned and told you're getting worse and they'd better come in...
So this strange taboo endures. Why? Because it is intensely private? So it is, but so is childbirth, which is routinely shown in all its gory glory even on daytime TV. So is sexual intercourse, which Channel 4 at least has no qualms about showing in lingering detail. So is invasive surgery, so is colonic irrigation - but let's not go there... What is it about 'the moment of death' that gives it such a powerful taboo status? Fifty years ago, it wouldn't have been shown on TV of course - any more than sex or childbirth would - but it was not in itself taboo, and most people expected at some point in their lives to be at the deathbed watching a loved one die. Now you can get through a life, and lose many loved ones, without once seeing death happening. And it seems that many of us (or them out there) want to keep it that way. Why?

14 comments:

  1. Could it not be said, and probably has been, that birth is the beginning of death and, if this is accepted, we all witness the many layers of death unfolding and, if we choose to and happen to be around, we can be there when the motor stops?

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  2. Is there a "moment of death"? In the case of sudden trauma or organ failure, well OK. But anyone who's been at the bedside of a relative who gradually "drifts away" would question that. I'd also question how many people really want to keep the death of friends and family hidden away in a ward. The medical profession would like to, perhaps. And the State. Death has become a bureaucratic arrangement. We must resist them. In the meantime, it's hard to think the matter be will made any more comprehensible by a prurient film that sounds like one of those awful books about "understanding" the mind of a serial killer.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. In America, death has taken a holiday. Few people have actually *seen* it happen. It's hidden in hospitals and dressed up in funeral homes. No wonder we all fear it: we hardly know it.

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  5. Having been present at the scene of a number of sudden deaths I can say with some conviction that unlike the end of an illness, the slow sinking beneath the waves, a violent end is an extremely thought provoking experience. One minute they are there, full of life, full of activity, the next minute, thwack, gone. Thoughts race through the mind, that could easily have been me, don't be silly, you're more thorough, been around longer, know your limits, still here, but there again... The first time I thought the bodies were like rag dolls, every bone broken, were they really once whole?
    The more I saw, the more immune I became, in the end simply working out the logistics of removal and to be honest, another good climb f..ked up by some idiot who couldn't judge their own ability, but hang on, what about the parents, the anguish.
    Gives a completely different viewpoint on life, mountaineering, up there is reality, down here isn't.
    Can't understand why death is a taboo subject, we can't avoid it, can we ?

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  6. Why? Loss of belief in an afterlife.

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  7. I have seen it happen. My first spouse died in a hospital. My stepdaughter Jennifer and I were there holding her hand (she was not conscious). She and I had separated by that time, but I felt it was my place to be there. And I'm glad I was.

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  8. Mark says: "t's hard to think the matter be will made any more comprehensible by a prurient film."

    I think this is only prurient to the lurid. To those with sick or elderly relatives, such a film is a public service.

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  9. Your reader may enjoy Sex, Death and YouTube: How Hypocrisy-Induce Hysteria Hurts Us All

    http://www.comstockfilms.com/blog/tony/2008/12/04/youtube-not-mytube-how-hysteria-induced-hypocrisy-hurts-all-of-us/

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  10. @anon It would seem to me that one's belief in the afterlife is a completely separate affair from how one reacts to the moment of death.

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  11. My 3 sisters and I were with our mother when she died. We thought it was much better than when we heard from the nursing home that our father had died (Alzheimer's). My wife was with both of her parents when they died. AFAIK, none of us believes in an afterlife. We are here for a while, and then we're gone. The only "afterlife" is the memories held by our survivors. I hope I've lived in such a way that those memories are pleasant.

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  12. Taboo? I never thought of it that way.

    But death does seem to strike and disturb an emotion that is deep-seated in our psyche. I've personally never become used to seeing it in the hospital (I'm in health care). Most of these deaths affect me in some way--and I'm not talking about professional soul-searching. The effect is more just a raw, sort of a disembodied human emotion. It is not unlike jet lag in some ways, only there is more of a sense of burden to it.

    And then my own father died, peacefully, and with dignity and on his own terms at home, not long ago. He was the first close relative in my life who's died while I was at his bedside. Many of us were in the room when he passed on. I was speaking into his ear.

    I experienced emotions during and after that for which I was ill-prepared, despite all my other experiences with patients and their families.

    The human reaction to death seems to me almost a primitive behavior. Primitive in the sense it is more instinctual than it is cerebral and cognitive.

    I'm not so sure we can ever train ourselves to handle it in any other way then what we do now.

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  13. I work in healthcare and I take complete issue with the idea that anyone is consciously barred from the moment of death. Any relative who wishes to be present can be at any time of the day, the hospital I work in will try and set up a bed for relatives in the room and make them a cup of tea when possible. I know of no one close to death whose relatives were deliberately excluded, the phone call you refer to is usually due to an unexpected or sudden deterioration.

    The medical profession has no interest in hiding away death indeed some people continue to ask us to treat relatives who clearly would not benefit from unpleasant invasive treatment.

    Ideally more people would die at home in their own surroundings and many a time we have scrambled to try and discharge people because we know their clock is ticking and we want to get them home. In truth it is incredibly hard to look after the needs of a dying person, most families will struggle without a lot of support and this is part of the reason more people die in hospital than perhaps should.

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