Nothing is sacrosanct on Twitter, no detail of intimate life too delicate to explore; except death. There is no #death hashtag. It has to be masked – #dyingmatters.
No surprises in the etymology – the word comes from the old english dēath and can be traced back to the old Norse deyja – we didn’t need the Romans or the Normans to give us a word for the end of life as they did for so many things we had never seen or heard of before.
Yet 1,000 years or more later, we still recoil from the word – even Doctors, or perhaps especially Doctors, are reluctant to use the word, reluctant to have a conversation about death.
In an age when we consider it our inalienable right to redefine every aspect of our life – only a fifth of us, 21% – have ever discussed with anyone where we wish to be buried, or how we wish our remains to be treated. Cremated or Buried? Have you ever talked to anyone about your wishes?
This week is ‘Dying Matters Awareness Week’ and the ‘Dying Matters Coalition and the National Council for Palliative Care’ are struggling to get anyone to talk about death. Personally I want to be recycled; as a keen gardener, I would like to be put to good use fertilising a rose – my Aunt and Uncle are doing a magnificent job providing nutrient to a (now) enormous magnolia tree in deepest Shropshire; I’ve checked on its progress via Google from time to time, unbeknown to the present owners of that property – it was their wish, and certainly a more useful function than cluttering up a council cemetery under acres of grass.
People recoil from death; though it hasn’t been infectious since the days of the Great Plague apart from isolated pockets of darkest Africa and places like the London Hospital for Infectious Diseases. Yet I was once with a man when he died, along with a social worker who ran shaking from the room, later discovered trembling and sobbing in the Manager’s Office, declaring herself unable to work for the rest of the day. I was amazed, there was nothing unpleasant about his death, he had simply breathed his last and departed – yet she had taken off as though pursued by a horde of angry hornets. We had no emotional connection to him – we were simply doing our job – what creates this reaction?
Why do we, these days, ask a total stranger to prepare our nearest and dearest for their funeral? To take their body away and return it at the funeral neatly packaged and sanitised? What is it that we are frightened of? Being reminded that someone we loved is no longer alive? Are we actually able to forget that discomforting fact via the services of a funeral director?
I can remember being amazed by the sad circumstances of the Spanish babies that had been stolen for adoption by hospital staff – an event only made possible because not one of the women had ever seen their ‘dead’ babies; they hadn’t asked to see them, hadn’t demanded to see them, hadn’t demanded to arrange a funeral, had just accepted the news told to them by the nurses.
More recently, we have the women in Glasgow, ‘facing a lifetime of uncertainty’ because they had no way of knowing whereabouts in a garden of remembrance the ashes of their babies had ben scattered. They had ‘left it to the hospital authorities’ to deal with ‘the matter sensitively’ and were now appalled and traumatised to find that ashes had been scattered in a rose garden to the cemetery when they had been told ‘there were no ashes’. I should point out that many, if not most, of these babies were ‘unviable foetuses’ of 22 to 24 weeks gestation. That is not to decry the sadness of losing a baby at any stage of a pregnancy – nor the emotional trauma that you may experience at the time – but surely if you have have distinct wishes about how the remains of someone, even a 24 week foetus, should be dealt with – shouldn’t you speak up, discuss this with someone, anyone, at the time?
Isn’t the real problem here our inability to talk about death, our desire to pretend that it isn’t real? That if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist? Even though we know that it most certainly does exist.
We can have impassioned debates about whether those in the very rare circumstances of wanting to end their life, but being physically incapable of doing so, should be helped on their way by a Doctor – yet most of us will end our lives peacefully in our sleep – to be discovered, come morning, by a partner who has no idea what we would like to happen next. A partner who will telephone for a stranger to come and take us away – and charge us around £7,000 on average for his discrete services.
Our aversion to talking about death extends to writing a will – the reaction of some 2 out of every 3 people is ‘don’t want to think about it’ or ‘I’m only young, I’ve got plenty of time to do that’ – as though even talking about the possibility of death is enough to ‘bring it on’.
Yet in the digital age, we fret about what happens to our Twitter account when we are dead!
So, have you ever talked about your death to anyone, does anybody know what you would like to have happen to your body, can you bring yourself to discuss it?
We shall see…comments are open!