A worrying movement towards the anticipation and formalisation of our own deaths is emerging in the new cause célèbre of assisted death. On the 10th June the BBC showed the assisted death of a motor neurone sufferer at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. In Choosing to Die, author Terry Pratchett, who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, watched 71-year old Peter Smedley take a cup of poison, fall asleep, stop breathing and pass away. It was an incredibly moving and uncomfortable scene to watch and one felt immense sympathy for Peter and his wife, Christine. They were stoical throughout and generous for sharing this intensely private moment.
Terry Pratchett made the film because he wants to discover and plan how and when he can choose to die. He wanted to prove to us that assisted death is a good thing and should be sanctioned by government in the UK. He ended the programme by declaring that Peter Smedley’s death was a “happy event” and that Mr Smedley was “..the bravest man I have ever met.” Terry Pratchett fears being unable to exercise the faculties that he believes define who he is and so wants to end his days while he is still on top and can choose to die in a dignified manner.
But Terry Pratchett is wrong in many ways. There is no such thing as a good or dignified moment of death or way of dying. Death is just death and absolutely no more; it is the annihilation of life. It is never dignified and so it shouldn’t be, for it is the end of a human imagination, a whole pulsing, loving, reasoning expanding and connecting human entity. The focusing on and formalisation of death, its planned preparation and delivery, robs us of the affirmation of ourselves that comes from struggle for life even if it is merely a fruitless and irrational last grasp, a futile last ditch stand, one more spit and shit, squeal and belch or scream. Anticipating our deaths, foreclosing on our lives before we are quite there is a negation of life beyond the literal sense. When I watched Peter Smedley take his own life, I felt diminished by the act because another human had denied themselves the chance to continue even if only for months, days or just minutes longer.
When Peter and Christine Smedley are sitting next to one another at a table in the Dignitas Clinic, Peter’s eyes and skin, voice, memories, knowledge and humour are all vibrant. I could see the warmth of his body and sense the blood coursing through his veins. His life was vivid in his relationship with his wife at that moment as they swapped glances and talked. He meant everything to her and so she could have nothing to do with deciding the moment he drank the poison.
If we get used to people dispatching their own lives rather than having it wrenched from them by nature what impact will that have on how we all consider the value of life? How we die is important but not for those of us who are about to pop our clogs. It sends a clear message to those around who will still be present for the booze up at the wake. It tells the living what we thought about life. Indeed death is really only experienced by those who witness it and who are left behind.
Most of us struggle on trying to avoid our shit deaths by the act of eking every gram of meaning out of every minute. In Terry Pratchett’s film the most inspiring person was Mick Gordelier who decided to live in a hospice. He was a taxi driver until motor neurone disease hit. He considered Dignitas but after lasting seven and a half years with the disease he said to himself, “let’s have another roll of the dice.” The man had wit and determination. He was not going to be prematurely defeated by the prospect of future discomfort.
Terry Pratchett said in his film that, “I want to enjoy life for as long as I can squeeze the juice out of it and then I’d like to die.” But his preoccupation with assisted death is in danger of eroding that fine sentiment. A better example and inspiration would be the philosophy of death of the jazz singer, dandy, raconteur, bisexual and boozer, George Melly. Luckily for all of us it was filmed so can be watched as an antidote to Terry Pratchett’s Choosing to Die. With the glorious title, George Melly’s Last Stand (2008), this BBC film by Kate Buchanan follows the man through the last months and days of his life. In it, rather than suffering from his double lung cancer and vascular dementia, Melly mocks it and his impending demise. He is wheeled onto stage at the 100 Club and falters, rasps and warbles though his favourite songs. We know it is the voice of a man resisting death and we enjoy it for that reason without pity. It is not even the memory of a once loved singer but a recognition of contempt for death that puts a smile on our faces and is invigorating. It shouts, ‘I want to remain here with you’. Instead of seeing his decrepit body, our minds are caught up with his persistent optimism. Melly even refused surgery on his lungs because he believed he would have a better quality of life in the time he had left singing with his band rather than in hospital going under the knife and receiving therapy. Photographer and friend, Michael Woods describes Melly’s attitude as pure defiance, “I’m not going to give in to myself, to life, to death, to anything.” For him Melly was the embodiment of “joyous excess to the end.” The man is in pain and knows he has only one summer left. He has a loyal and committed wife, Diana, who helps him and a constant supply of friends and muses. We are not all so blessed and yet his message is good for all of us: don’t take death lying down. I am no lover of jazz in general and, in particular, Melly’s style of jazz singing so there is a supreme irony that I have only come to respect the man and his spirit for the total disdain he held for his impending death.
No, Mr Pratchett, nothing we do in the face of assured and imminent death can bring dignity, nothing we do to design our demise is brave. It is the opposite. It is what we do in the face of life and its challenges when in good health, risking humiliation, harm or death to carve more from life that gives life joy, dignity and valour and tells us just how civilised we are. Another more recent film is evidence of this. In Senna (2011), the intense and electrifying rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost propels them into death defying combat on the race tracks of the world. They force one another to be more, raising their skills and the level of risk both were prepared to take to win. Like Melly they defied death but unlike him they did it on every working day of their lives and their actions made more of us all. They were inspirational. Senna’s death was tragic but was in balance with the way he lived.
Today, too many of us are worried about how we will end to enjoy life itself to its fullest. The problem we are confronted with is that there is less chance to be a Senna or even a Melly. Defiant, self-determined, optimistic and risk taking individuals are scorned in our contemporary culture that is struck dumb by risk aversion and pessimism. Maybe our fears of living well into our eighties or nineties at a time when we find it hard to envisage a meaningful and useful place for ourselves in the future makes us more open to contemplating the design of our deaths. We simply do not value our lives enough today and so there is little to stop us obsessing with the way they will end. Melly and Senna simply had too much to enjoy and prove to ruminate about how they would shuffle off. Intensity of life gave consideration of death no ear.
Peter Smedley made a personal choice to die and that is how such a decision should remain, private. Terry Pratchett’s desire to the State become involved in sanctioning and organising assisted death would only transform what is one of the most private events we face into a bureaucratic, impersonal and trivialised process. Although there is little evidence that many people would rush to end their days, with only around one thousand people visiting the Dignitas Clinic in ten years, a shift towards the legalisation of euthanasia in the UK would only contribute to the fatalism and weariness that grips our culture today.