The Dance of Death from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Dance of Death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957)

One of my favourite jokes about death is one I heard on the Dave Allen show. One man says to another “I’d like to know where I’m going to die”. “Why would you want to know a thing like that?” asks his friend. “So I’d know never to go there”, the man replies.

This has the same perverse Irish logic of someone asking for directions and being told “Well, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you!”

The harsh reality is that we are here and one day we won’t be.

The poet/priest John O’Donohue (another Irishman!) said that people are happy at funerals because they are not the one in the coffin  but this contentment has a limited duration. O’Donohue himself died suddenly in his sleep while on holiday in France aged just 52. The cause of death has never been officially released but it’s fair to assume that he didn’t see his end coming quite so soon.

We all calculate a life expectancy of at least 70 and, if we’re lucky, we might even sneak in two or three decades more. But most of the time the thought of  shuffling off this mortal coil is one that we put to the back of our minds.

In The Game of Thrones, when Tyrion (‘the imp’) is asked how he would like to die. He replies: “In my own bed, with a belly full of wine and a maiden’s mouth around my cock, at the age of 80”. This certainly sounds like a good way to go but the dread remains.

Death comes in many forms

Death comes in many forms

If you believe in God, you may be able to console yourself that a better world awaits but death is never a cause for celebration. The end is even more final if, like me, you’re not pinning your hopes on an afterlife (it would be a very pleasant surprise if I was wrong!)

In ‘Wake Up And Live! – A Formula For Success’, Dorothea Brande wrote:  “All those in the grip of the Will to Fail act as if they had a thousand years before them. Whether they dream or dance, they spend their precious hours as though the store of them were inexhaustible”. I think she’s right and this is partly due to the fact that death is the thing most fear the most but talk about the least.

Anyone raising the topic (outside of funerals) is likely to be branded as morbid. Life is for living so thinking about dying is therefore associated with negativity or fatalism. The Victorians used to take picnics into graveyards but those days are long gone and you’d probably be labelled as a freak if you suggested taking sandwiches to the cemetery now.

Which is why I was happy to learn of the existence of Death Cafés whose mission is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping the most of their (finite) lives“.

Jon Underwood founder of the Death Cafè

Jon Underwood founder of the Death Cafè

Jon Underwood, a British web designer, got the idea after reading an article about ‘Cafe Mortels’ in Switzerland. The name conjures up a vision of permanent tea rooms draped in black with posters of the Grim Reaper on the wall but they are actually  temporary settings where people can meet informally and discuss the big taboo in a civilised manner over tea and cake.

Underwood held his first Death Café in the basement of his home in September 2011 and the idea has taken off to the point that it has become a ‘social franchise’ whereby anybody, anywhere, can facilitate their own event on a non-profit basis.  By 2013 there had been over a hundred Death Cafés divided between the UK and the US but the idea has also spread to Canada and Australia.

So far, it seems to be an English speaking phenomenon but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time for other countries to follow; this after all, is a subject that is difficult to talk about in any language.

Sir Terry Prachett

Sir Terry Prachett

On a related matter, I recently watched the video of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Dimbleby Lecture (Shaking Hands With Death) in 2010 about another taboo issue, that of euthanasia. Pratchett has a rare form of Alzheimer’s Disease and has done a valuable service in helping publicise a condition that, much like cancer in the past (and death now) few talk openly about.

The writer defines himself as a humanist saying “I prefer to think of myself as a rising ape than a fallen angel”. Without God on his side, and not having huge faith in the medical services (who initially misdiagnosed his illness as a minor stroke) he is pressing for changes in legislation to make it easier for him to die with dignity rather than being kept alive by modern technology. His witty but thought-provoking talk was read for him by Sir Tony ‘Baldrick’ Robinson and is well worth watching if you haven’t already seen it.

There is a school of thought that if, like Pratchett, you know more precisely when (if not necessarily where) you will die, this at least gives you the impetus to make the most of your final days. But waiting for this moment seems to me to be the definitive form of crisis management.

Of course, with your personal time clock ticking relentlessly you can’t plan ahead indefinitely but living to the full is to my mind incompatible with the anti-proverb most consciously or sub-consciously follow: ‘Always put off until tomorrow what you can avoid today’.

Facing the truth of your mortality is not wishing away your life but having the firm resolve that the time to live is right here, right now. There is no such thing as a happy death, only a happy life.

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