“A small fact:
You are going to die….does this worry you?” 
― Markus ZusakThe Book Thief

Yesterday a hearse with a coffin inside dressed with flowers passed by me in the midst of traffic.  It struck me that this solid representation of dying and death seemed at odds with the rest of society and the traffic on the road – a bit out of place.  Today, I passed a sign at the library, my two small boys in tow, advertising that Auckland Council is running a discussion session at the library this month encouraging people to talk about end of life and ageing issues and how one might like their retirement years to be.  Surely dying and death will become ever more prominent as society continues to age and we encounter it more and more through friends, family and community.  

As people have fewer children and elderly people represent a growing proportion of society, in many countries around the world the challenge to ensure the dignity and happiness of the very elderly or dying grows greater.  Professor Kellehear, a professor of sociology and author of ‘A social history of dying’, argues that it is not cancer, heart disease or medical science that presents modern dying conduct with its greatest moral tests, but rather poverty, ageing and social exclusion.  Kellehear has commented that the lingering process of dying has itself “become a form of social death, a living without supports and a dying frequently unrecognised.” 

One reviewer comments that, as society historically moved into cities for the first time, “in an age of ever-increasing attempts to control nature, dying was transformed from a “wild” thing into something that had to be, and for the first time could be, “tamed” by those who knew how to do so.” And now in the current “Cosmopolitan Age”, “there has been an enormous erosion of the “awareness of dying.”  Certainly, what appears if you type ‘death’ into Google images is unenlightening and quite unsettling.

The hospice movement (having been around in different forms since its inception through the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages) has been one of the most successful modern movements in helping people really deal with death and talk about dying. The movement aims to address ‘the whole person’ instead of just treating a disease.  In the 1950s Dame Cicely Saunders first developed many of the foundational principles of modern hospice care in London, introducing the notion of ‘total pain’, which includes psychological and spiritual as well as physical pain.   Elisabeth Kubler Ross was also a central figure in the development of the hospice movement and published her very popular stage-theory of grief and the dying process in 1969, bringing the process of death and dying more into hospitals and the public arena than it had been previously at that time.  

Christians around the world have just celebrated the biggest celebration on their calendar, a time when millions of Christians around the world focus on death and resurrection into new life, and numerous countries at least culturally celebrate as a nation.  Yet despite such reflection, we are not inclined to think about our own deaths all that much.  No one likes ‘not knowing’ what will happen next or the idea of pain.  To end seems very unnatural to us (and indeed a large proportion of the world do not accept that we do end).  

As our societies continue to age and more people die from age-related illness and old age around us, perhaps we will have cause to reflect on death more.  It might help us align our priorities, so often askew despite our best intentions, a little better.  We might even be moved to consider more those in our midst who might be struggling with ageing or encountering for the first time, as it is for us all, the process of dying.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...