Sunday, 22 March 2009

A Very Public Death...

Jade Goody died this morning. She was only 27 years old. She is survived by her husband and two young sons.

Her death has been a public spectacle - intentionally on her part as the money from the rights to her wedding will provide a financial legacy for her sons.

Death is inevitable yet it's one of the most difficult of subjects. Social attitudes to death vary - some have doubtless found Jade Goody's very public death distasteful but there has also been a morbid fascination at seeing this young woman preparing herself and her family mentally and physically for her passing.

While millions died in wars and politically-motivated genocide in the 20th century, it was also a century which saw huge advances in the preservation of life. Life expectancies in rich countries soared as infant mortality slumped. In Britain, for example, we don't think about infant mortality or diseases like smallpox or typhoid or cholera yet two centuries ago, it was a real achievement to reach your tenth birthday.

To get to 50 was almost unknown outside the very wealthiest but nowadays we not only take our "three score years and ten" for granted but there are more centenarians than there have ever been. Death has been pushed to the fringes of our everyday life and I think our treatment of the elderly is symptomatic of that. We are happy to put the elderly in "care homes" so they can die there away from us.

My mother died three and a half years ago and my father had to care for her in her final days. It was very hard for him and he kept me insulated from the worst of it.

I have come to the view that we should have the right to deal with death on our own terms. There is a prevailing ethos toward the sanctity of life and that we must fight death with every last breath. However, there is also the argument that the prolonging of suffering is equally inhumane and that, if arrived at clearly and decisively, there is no real reason why an individual should not be allowed to end his or her existence on his or her own terms.

Is that an argument for euthanasia ? No, but it is a recognition that where an individual has clearly stated his or her wish to die, then that wish should be respected. I struggle to see why assisted suicide should not be legalised and there have been moves to enact this in Scotland.

Jade Goody's death may have been media circus but it forces each of us to question how we would confront our own mortality. These aren't comfortable issues but perhaps it marks an evolution in societal attitudes to death and the business of dying.

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