Final preparations

October 22, 2009

Having watched BBC Four's The Art of Dying, in which Dan Cruickshank worked at encountering his own mortality, Gary Day asks "what is there to say except that we are all going to kick the bucket?" ("Bored to death", 8 October). Accompanying the programme, The Open University's free booklet offered to help us make sense of the end of life. But Day is not interested. It would be useless, he says.

It is startling to hear a fellow academic express views that flout major spiritual, philosophical and literary traditions that for centuries have encouraged precisely the contemplation of mortality and its practical implications for how life might best be lived. More recently, the avoidance of death in 20th-century Western societies has been criticised by key social scientists such as Zygmunt Bauman and the historian Philippe Aries.

Day's article provided yet another example of such avoidance. Maybe it's up to him whether or not he chooses to discover what death might teach him about life. Yet society's difficulty in acknowledging the transience of its members has painful consequences: the bleakness of dying in medical regimes that prioritise cure over care; the emotional and social isolation still faced by bereaved people; the underfunding of cemeteries.

Research centres and courses at universities such as Bath, Lancaster, Durham and the OU help to make death part of life for people such as nurses and funeral directors who teach and work in death and dying.

Our capacity to engage more humanely with this challenging aspect of life is growing, but there is still a long way to go. Avoidance of death is the ultimate in short-termism for, as the poet Emily Dickinson points out: "Because I could not stop for Death/he kindly stopped for me".

Jenny Hockey, President of the Association for the Study of Death and Society, University of Sheffield.

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