I DO not know how I will die; although, because sometimes I
forget, I often walk through graveyards to remind myself that I
will. But is there a good death for me, a preferable manner of
Dr Richard Smith, a former editor of the British Medical
Journal, has recently defended the indefensible by claiming
that dying of cancer is the "best death", and that we should "stop
wasting billions trying to cure it". So, what is good about cancer?
It allows people to say goodbye, he says, and to prepare for death,
which is preferable to sudden death, death from organ failure, or
"the long, slow death from dementia".
Such positivity around cancer will be uncomfortable for some,
echoing my discomfort with the take on the crucifixion in Monty
Python's Life of Brian, where the crucified figure sang "Look
on the bright side of life." The words sound callous towards the
awfulness of the experience.
But it is the slow death offered by cancer which appeals to Dr
Smith in his blog for the BMJ: "You can say goodbye,
reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special
places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read
loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your
maker, or enjoy eternal oblivion."
He acknowledges that this is a romantic view of dying, but
believes it achievable "with love, morphine, and whisky. But stay
away from overambitious oncologists, and let's stop wasting
billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a
much more horrible death."
Most people wish for a sudden death. I know a newspaper editor
who wants to die at his desk, doing what he enjoys. But, despite
being most people's departure of choice, sudden death can be
difficult for those left behind, Dr Smith says, particularly where
there are unresolved issues in a relationship which must now remain
so. And "I never got to say goodbye" is a painful lament to live
Organ failure, he says, can leave people "far too much in
hospital, and in the hands of doctors"; and a death after dementia
"may be the most awful, as you are slowly erased".
I met a dynamic CEO in the pub recently - a man keen to make
money on earth. But, as he ate his curry pie, he told me of the
plot of land he had bought for his burial, beneath a tree and close
to other members of his family.
Some might have considered the conversation morbid - there was a
"look" from the neighbouring table - but it wasn't, because he was
quite at peace about it all. And that is, perhaps, the secret of a
good death. No terror here; although the film director Luis Buñuel
did not want to die alone: "I must know whose fingers will close my
eyes," he said.