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28 June 1999

Once more, we are learning to die in public

A cardinal, a TV playwright and several columnists have started a new fashion in death. Peter Stanfo

By Peter Stanford

There are very few taboos left but until recently dying was something you did in private, surrounded by a handful of family and friends. A death notice in the hatches, matches and dispatches and, if you were lucky, an obituary was about as public as it got, and anyway that was all after the event.

Death itself was out of sight and sanitised. Most obituaries still don’t mention what their subject has died from and generally avoid any reference to last agonies, thereby enabling any connection with readers’ own mortality to be played down to such an extent that we can, as most of us prefer to do until almost the last moment, ignore the most basic fact of life.

This overwhelming coyness is of relatively recent vintage. There was a time when death was automatically followed by a wake, with the dead body in its coffin placed in the middle of the sitting-room while family, neighbours and anyone who was passing dropped in to pay their respects, drown their sorrows and sing a few last laments. Now undertakers whisk away the corpse as quickly as possible, quoting public health concerns. Bureaucracy tries to shield us from the realities of death.

We in our turn are glad that it does, for we have grown squeamish about the odours and fluids that a body oozes after death. So squeamish, indeed, that most of us refuse even the invitation to visit the recently dead in the controlled environment of a chapel of rest, after they have been cleaned and plumped up like a cushion. When the bodies of the great and good are allowed to lie in state in advance of their funeral, the coffin lid is often nailed down, as has been the case this month with Cardinal Basil Hume. It would seem that we fear contamination by the mere sight of a corpse.

There is a certain irony in the church authorities following contemporary fashion in the way they have displayed Hume’s body, for the leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales in his last weeks and months did much to challenge the taboo about going through the process of dying in public. He embraced death openly, revealed his diagnosis of inoperable cancer without inhibition and continued to go about his public duties while receiving treatment. He spoke candidly of being at peace with God over his future. He was, wrote his friend and former pupil Hugo Young, “the only person of my acquaintance who did not appear to be at all afraid of dying”.

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Hume has not been the only public figure to break with convention and die publicly in recent years. The columnists Oscar Moore and Ruth Picardie looked death in the eye in print. Their colleague, John Diamond, has chronicled his own battle with cancer in the Times, in a best-selling book and in two television documentaries. In the most recent he spoke about living on borrowed time. The small screen also played host to a spell-binding last interview with the dying Dennis Potter.

All in their own way challenged our reticence about death. They allowed us to observe the process of dying that is now everywhere swept under the carpet. These were undoubtedly invitations to voyeurism, but voyeurism for a higher purpose. For what these writers and Hume seemed to have realised was that we have lost touch with the realities of dying. They sought to remind us that, pretend as we might, we are not immortal and never will be.

My mother was one of eight children of Irish Catholic parents who settled in Liverpool. Elderly aunts and uncles, cousins or friends would come and live with them and often die with them. Death was part and parcel of her growing up, the corpse in the front parlour amid the antimacassar and best china little more than a break in the usual routine. Yet in my generation the old are shuffled off to nursing homes, geriatric wards and hospices to pass away in private. They are tended by professionals who shield us from the grim physical facts of life and death.

There is an often unspoken assumption that watching the mechanics of someone die would terrify or repel us. Perhaps, then, Hume’s greatest contribution to the battle to demythologise the end of life was his own lack of fear. “Some instinct,” he wrote, “a positive and optimistic one, speaks of hope leading to life after death.” In one sense his words should not be surprising. He led the local branch of a multinational religion which teaches that death is the moment when our lives with our maker truly begin. Everything that has gone before is just a prelude. Yet, in our nominally Christian culture, few have Hume’s faith that what they profess will actually, come the final day, be the practice. Believer or not, we all have too much invested in the here and now.

That lack of conviction about the afterlife spreads even to those in charge of the churches. Catholicism has a tradition of avoiding the subject of death when it comes to its leaders. Though Pope John Paul II shows all the signs of Parkinson’s disease when he is out and about, the Vatican refuses to answer any questions on the matter. When Pope Paul VI was dying in 1976, Vatican spokesmen issued almost daily bulletins on how he had eaten a hearty breakfast, attended to his papers and was fighting fit. Only when he had passed away did the wall of silence crumble.

Against such a backdrop, Hume’s openness was all the more remarkable. He regarded his own death, his close colleagues have revealed, as his last public ministry rather than a private trial. When he had the strength, he replied personally to the many thousands of letters that flooded in, revealing their writers’ own fears about death.

If we avoid discussing the details of dying – John Diamond delighted in his television film in the one person who asked to see inside his mouth, where the cancer is eating away at him – then we eschew even more resolutely any talk of the afterlife. This is a 20th-century affectation born out of the uneasy and incomplete triumph of science and secularism. The Victorians were as obsessed with death as we are with sex. Their fantasies were filled with heaven and hell, angelic wings and punishing fires. A century later, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. We are living in the new enlightenment with science triumphant and religion apparently going out of business.

Apparently. For, in the recent spate of public deaths, we witnessed a battle between the certainties of science that the death of the body is the end of everything and the promise of religion that the soul endures. In such extraordinary circumstances, our verdict is nowhere near as clear-cut as statistics about declining mass attendance would suggest. Confronted with voices and spirits as strong and indomitable as those of Moore and Picardie, we are invited to hope that that there is something more. Indeed their words and the impact they made on us live on – in Picardie’s case in a book.

The scientists’ “it’s all over now” materialism and their dismissal of the afterlife for lack of empirical proof seem wrong and mean-spirited when set against the testimonies of these men and women. For once, rather than cast light upon the mysteries of nature, space or time, the scientists plunge us into the darkness of despair: if we are to believe them, this is all there is.

Hume’s death, he insisted many times over the past few months, was unremarkable. It was an attitude that flew in the face of a culture which insists that every individual has special meaning, where every medical effort is therefore directed to clinging to life a little longer. By dying in the way he did, he reminded us that there are older, more enduring and more spiritual measures of intrinsic worth.

Yet, curiously, too, there was something decidedly modern in the voyeurism he permitted. The standard approach today to opening up emotional and mental no-go areas is therapy – talking about the issues openly, identifying others who have suffered in the same way, sharing insights with them. On a public platform, Hume indirectly, and the likes of Picardie, Moore and Diamond much more straightforwardly, did precisely this in regard to death. By their personal revelations they gave us a key to unlock our own inhibitions, a friend through whose suffering we can explore what lies ahead for us all.

There was something undeniably morbid in the fascination with which we lapped up what they offered. Yet morbidity – like everything else to do with death – is not automatically negative. By breaking the taboo about dying in public, a small group of brave souls has tried to remind us that it may be healthy, nay, necessary, to face up to the death which is the one certainty that unites us.

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