Some of the issues investigated include:
Death as a stranger: Death and dying have become institutionalized and medicalized to the extent that few outside the medical or funeral industries have witnessed or cared for a dying or dead person. This removal of death and dying from our lives is eroding our affinity and kinship to events that have been seminal to culture since the dawn of humanity. This conspiracy among us is shrinking our capacities to be fully human, to make a meaning from death, and to die well.
Death phobia: A living culture provides an affirmative meaning for death through its myths and rituals. But today in the West, death is a feared because it means annihilation. Death is a kind of desolation and without a mythological or cultural story to feed us, we fear it like never before. As a result, death phobia lies at the heart of our institutions and endeavours. This is apparent in the training of our health professionals and the services rendered by healthcare.
The costs of living longer: ‘If we can, we should’ has become a mantra in modern medicine. Faced with a choice between death, long-term chronic ill health and the prospect of a cure, few can resist choosing more treatment. But the experience of many people who choose new drugs and aggressive medical interventions isn’t what they imagined. Evidence shows that terminally ill people who choose more interventions endure more illness and complications and experience less autonomy than those who choose palliative and hospice care. By contrast, people who accept their prognosis and who choose palliative care are happier and live longer than those who endlessly pursue life-extending therapies.
End-of-life conversations: Stories about families burdened by making life and death decisions for their loved ones are too common. So are stories of doctors taking matters into their own hands, sometimes against the wishes of patients and families. Evidence shows that people who have practical conversations with doctors and their families about their preferences for their end-of-life care are more likely to die a ‘good death’ while sparing their families a lot of heartache and distress.
Rituals of the body: What becomes of our body when we die needn’t preoccupy us but we can ease the burden on loved ones by letting them know what to do with our corpse. This matters because they live with the memory of our body. And although we can’t ensure that our wishes for our body are honoured, recording them and sharing them is an act of love, a way to care for the living.
Living our deepest truth: Each of us is called to particular work, according to our biography and talents and circumstances. But remembering the particular work we are born for is a hard business today. It’s given little comfort or tuition. But answering that call and making it happen in the world is to lay claim to our deepest truth and our kinship to each other.
Elders: Once upon a time we had elders, people whose words and deeds revealed the wisdom of living and dying in accord with the time-tested truth that life has limits. They are living testaments of the truth that life will continue even though we won’t, and that our lives are nourished and sustained by a covenant of reciprocity. For those who can hear young people’s longing for wisdom, it is a petition to step away from cosy retreat and into servant leadership.