We want to share a compelling story by mortician Caitlin Doughty who explains why she wrote a book about the “art of dying” in a country that “largely views it as an emotionless biological act.”
“For me, the good death includes being prepared to die, with my affairs in order, the good and bad messages delivered that need delivering,” writes Doughty. “The good death means dying while I still have my mind sharp and aware; it also means dying without having to endure large amounts of suffering. The good death means accepting death as inevitable, and not fighting it when the time comes.”
“This is my good death,” writes Doughty, “but as Carl Jung said, ‘It won’t help to hear what I think about death.’ Your relationship to mortality is your own.”
Doughty wrote her book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, because she sees something profoundly wrong with how we treat the sick and elderly in America.
“We do not have the resources to properly care for our increasing elderly population, yet we insist on medical intervention to keep them alive.” Yet “the fastest-growing segment of the US population is over 85. If you reach 85, not only is there a strong chance you’re living with a terminal disease, statistics show you have a 50-50 chance of ending up in a nursing home.”
This differs sharply from the past. In 1899, only 4% of the U.S. population was over 65. “Now many will know that death is coming during years of deterioration. Medicine has given us the opportunity to sit at our own wakes.”
Doughty quotes Atul Gawande from his article in The New Yorker, “’there have been dozens of bestselling books on aging but they tend to have titles like ‘Younger Next Year,’ ‘The Fountain of Age,’ or ‘Ageless.’ But there are costs to averting our eyes from the realities. For one thing, we put off changes that we need to make as a society… In thirty years, there will be as many people over eighty as there are under five.”
“The unfortunate truth,” writes Doughty, “and one of the reasons why openly acknowledging death is so crucial, is most people who linger into extreme old age do not have a good retirement plan or devoted caretakers. And by not talking about death with our loved ones, by not being clear through Advanced Directives, Do Not Resuscitate Orders, and funeral plans, we are directly contributing to this future . . . and a rather bleak present, at that.”
Doughty says she views death as a good thing. “Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said, ‘The meaning of life is that it ends.’ You live life because of the inspiration death provides. If you lived forever, chances are you would be rendered unmotivated, robbed of life’s richness by dull routine. The great achievements of humanity were born out of the deadlines imposed by death.”
Doughty believes “it is never too early to start thinking about your own death and the deaths of those you love. I don’t mean thinking about death in obsessive loops but rational interaction. Accepting death doesn’t mean that you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like ‘Why do people die?’ and ‘Why is this happening to me? Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”
She believes overcoming our fears about death will not be easy “but we shouldn’t forget how quickly other cultural prejudices — racism, sexism, homophobia — have begun to topple. It is high time death had its own moment of truth.”
“Buddhists say thoughts are like drops of water on the brain,” Doughty writes. “When you reinforce the same thought, it will etch a new stream into your consciousness. Scientists confirm our neurons break connections and form new pathways all the time. So even if you’ve been programmed to fear death, that particular pathway isn’t set in stone. Each of us is responsible for seeking out new knowledge and creating new mental circuits.”
Doughty summarizes by writing, “We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. But making that choice means we will continue to be terrified of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives. Let us instead reclaim our mortality with bold, fearless strokes.”
Read the story here.