People may not fear death, but they dread the process of dying

People may not fear death, but they dread the process of dying

November 26, 2023

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Native Americans, I read recently, have a rather beautiful concept called “second death”. The first death is when breath finally leaves the body; the second is when someone says your name for the last time.

This is not entirely dissimilar from the notion at secular Australian funerals of “celebrating” a life. Stories, humour, sorrow and love honour the lamented lost, and help cement them in our memories – they too live on, in a sense, while they are remembered.

In her book A Better Death, oncologist Ranjana Srivastava notes how unprepared most people – even those aged in their 90s – are for the end of their life.Credit: Justin McManus

What surprises me is how often non-believers make remarks like “she’s in a better place now” or “he’ll be looking down from above” – a paradoxical cultural legacy from the Christian belief in heaven.

Yet perhaps it is not really surprising. After all, belief in an afterlife is near universal across cultures from the earliest times, as evidenced by prehistoric grave sites – it’s utterly fundamental, which is a form of evidence.

Non-believers tend to reject the idea of an afterlife as mere wish fulfilment, but their rejection could equally be understood the same way, for example, as a reluctance to admit the possibility of judgment. (This is the thought of the Christian version of the “second death”, described in the New Testament book of Revelation.)

The atheist understanding, like the Christian’s, is entirely a matter of faith – no categorical evidence exists either way, though Christians can point to the biblical accounts of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

Melbourne oncologist and writer Ranjana Srivastava, in her compassionate and thoughtful book A Better Death, notes how unprepared so many people are to die who have never thought about mortality and cannot accept it – even people in their 90s.

Having supported so many people of various ages and circumstances as cancer takes their life, she writes that many suffer a sort of existential pain – denial, absence of meaning, recrimination, regret – that can be as hard to bear as the physical aspects.

The urgent thing, she says, is to reflect before we age. “Dying well is about treating ourselves and others in the last act of life with grace and goodwill,” and there can be many moments of happiness, fulfilment and discovery that give meaning to life.

Death is today’s great taboo. People may not fear death, but they dread the process of dying. As Woody Allen quipped, he’s not afraid of dying, he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens.

These days, it seems, we all want to die painlessly in our sleep, preferably unexpectedly with no suffering beforehand. This is a stark contrast to previous centuries, when people wanted time to settle their affairs, take their leave of loved ones and, in particular, prepare to meet their maker.

Perhaps that’s a better death, both for the dying and for those they leave behind.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

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