kottke.org posts about death
When Queen Elizabeth II dies, who knows how a Brexit-addled Britain might react. She’s ruled now for 65 years; so long that three of her Prime Ministers were born during her rule. That’s why the Palace has a plan (known as “London Bridge”) for announcing her death, “its ceremonial aftermath”, and the ascension of Charles to the throne.
More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness - the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard — which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”
Unlike the US presidency, say, monarchies allow huge passages of time — a century, in some cases — to become entwined with an individual. The second Elizabethan age is likely to be remembered as a reign of uninterrupted national decline, and even, if she lives long enough and Scotland departs the union, as one of disintegration. Life and politics at the end of her rule will be unrecognisable from their grandeur and innocence at its beginning. “We don’t blame her for it,” Philip Ziegler, the historian and royal biographer, told me. “We have declined with her, so to speak.”
This is a great piece, full of interesting details and observations throughout. Like that George V was euthanized in time for the morning paper:
“The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close,” was the final notice issued by George V’s doctor, Lord Dawson, at 9.30pm on the night of 20 January 1936. Not long afterwards, Dawson injected the king with 750mg of morphine and a gram of cocaine — enough to kill him twice over — in order to ease the monarch’s suffering, and to have him expire in time for the printing presses of the Times, which rolled at midnight.
And that radio stations are equipped with a emergency system:
Britain’s commercial radio stations have a network of blue “obit lights”, which is tested once a week and supposed to light up in the event of a national catastrophe. When the news breaks, these lights will start flashing, to alert DJs to switch to the news in the next few minutes and to play inoffensive music in the meantime. Every station, down to hospital radio, has prepared music lists made up of “Mood 2” (sad) or “Mood 1” (saddest) songs to reach for in times of sudden mourning.
They’ve got this planned out to the second…no detail is too small:
It takes 28 minutes at a slow march from the doors of St James’s to the entrance of Westminster Hall.
British royals are buried in lead-lined coffins. Diana’s weighed a quarter of a ton.
Each year, Bill and Melinda Gates write a letter about the work they’re doing with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2006, Warren Buffett donated more than billion to their foundation, which effectively doubled its available resources. This year’s letter from the Gateses is addressed to Buffett and details the return on his investment so far.
Bill: If we could show you only one number that proves how life has changed for the poorest, it would be 122 million — the number of children’s lives saved since 1990.
Melinda: Every September, the UN announces the number of children under five who died the previous year. Every year, this number breaks my heart and gives me hope. It’s tragic that so many children are dying, but every year more children live.
Bill: More children survived in 2015 than in 2014. More survived in 2014 than in 2013, and so on. If you add it all up, 122 million children under age five have been saved over the past 25 years. These are children who would have died if mortality rates had stayed where they were in 1990.
Bill calls saving children’s lives “the best deal in philanthropy”. Melinda continues:
Melinda: And if you want to know the best deal within the deal — it’s vaccines. Coverage for the basic package of childhood vaccines is now the highest it’s ever been, at 86 percent. And the gap between the richest and the poorest countries is the lowest it’s ever been. Vaccines are the biggest reason for the drop in childhood deaths.
Melinda: They’re an incredible investment. The pentavalent vaccine, which protects against five deadly infections in a single shot, now costs under a dollar.
Bill: And for every dollar spent on childhood immunizations, you get $44 in economic benefits. That includes saving the money that families lose when a child is sick and a parent can’t work.
Vaccines. And Now my kids don’t die.
I know, I know. This is a car commercial and it’s morbid and at this moment in time it’s not really that funny, but it caught me at just the right time today and I laughed harder at this than I have at something in several weeks. So I guess even ad agencies are capable of enabling righteous acts (or at least inappropriately hilarious acts) these days?
The actor and comic Patton Oswalt lost his wife earlier this year to an unknown cause.
This was, Mr. Oswalt said, the second worst day of his life: “The worst is when I told my daughter the next day.”
He paused his rushing monologue, his voice lowering as he skipped over that awful memory to one from the next day, when Alice mentioned “Inside Out,” the Pixar film peopled with characters representing a girl’s emotional states. “I guess Sadness is doing her job right now,” she said.
Oh man, what a thing. How do you even deal with that? I’ve had some sad, low days over the past three years, but nothing compared to what Oswalt’s going through.
Update: Oswalt has been talking about his wife’s death and the aftermath in appearances and his updated stand-up material.
“If they would call it a numb slog instead of a healing journey, it would make it a lot fucking easier!” Oswalt said. “Because when they call it a healing journey and it’s just a day of you eating Wheat Thins for breakfast in your underwear, it’s like, ‘I guess I’m fucking up my healing journey.’ But if they would say you’re going to have a numb slog, instead you’d go, ‘I’m nailing it!’”
He went on to say that when he would sometimes tell his wife that “everything happens for a reason,” she would tell him, “No it doesn’t.” Ironically, he said, she ended up proving her point to him “in the shittiest way possible.” He added, “She won the argument in the worst way!”
Update: Oswalt writes about becoming a single parent after the death of his wife.
It feels like a walk-on character is being asked to carry an epic film after the star has been wiped from the screen. Imagine Frances McDormand dying in the first act of Fargo and her dim-bulb patrol partner — the one who can’t recognize dealer plates — has to bring William H. Macy to justice.
I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I want to tune out the world and hide under the covers and never leave my house again and send our daughter, Alice, off to live with her cousins in Chicago, because they won’t screw her up the way I know I will. Somebody help me! I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.
I could barely get through this piece without losing it. Every single fear and anxiety I have is now channelled through my parenting. If this is what it feels like for me — and I am lucky to have time away from it and an amazing parenting partner — I cannot imagine what this feels like for a truly single parent like Oswalt.
John Hofsess helped eight people die and just before he died late last month at an assisted death facility in Switzerland, he wrote this piece.
I was horrified anew in 1999 when the gifted conductor Georg Tintner, who was dying from a rare form of melanoma, jumped from the balcony of his 11th-floor apartment in Halifax to end his agony. Many Canadians would hear such news, shake their heads, utter a few sympathetic platitudes and move on. But I couldn’t just sit back and wring my hands. That year, I went from advocating for assisted suicides to facilitating them. Let’s not mince words: I killed people who wanted to die.
Noela Rukundo, whose husband had only recently paid to have killed, showed up at her own funeral.
Finally, she spotted the man she’d been waiting for. She stepped out of her car, and her husband put his hands on his head in horror.
“Is it my eyes?” she recalled him saying. “Is it a ghost?”
“Surprise! I’m still alive!” she replied.
Far from being elated, the man looked terrified. Five days earlier, he had ordered a team of hit men to kill Rukundo, his partner of 10 years. And they did - well, they told him they did. They even got him to pay an extra few thousand dollars for carrying out the crime.
Now here was his wife, standing before him. In an interview with the BBC on Thursday, Rukundo recalled how he touched her shoulder to find it unnervingly solid. He jumped. Then he started screaming.
What a story. As @tcarmody says, “I like to imagine Bezos grinning and salivating over this story like Charles Foster Kane”.
“I’m looking at a picture of two mice. The one on the right looks healthy. The one on the left has graying fur, a hunched back, and an eye that’s been whitened by cataracts.”
What’s the difference? Well, scientists at the Mayo clinic used a process to remove senescent (or retired) cells from one of them. And that process leads to mice who age better and live longer. As one researcher not connected to the study explains:
The usual caveats apply — it’s got to be reproduced by other people — but if it’s correct, without wanting to be too hyperbolic, it’s one of the more important aging discoveries ever.
The New York Times Magazine has published its annual death roundup: “The Lives They Lived.”
Rowdy Roddy Piper:
With Andre, Piper asks if it’s true that Big John Studd body-slammed him. No, Andre says, it isn’t. Piper, neck veins pulsing, suggests that even he could body-slam him. Interview over. Andre grabs Piper’s shirt, uses it to fling him across the room and walks off the set. Piper, red-hot with rage, screams, “You think you’re tough?” He stares into the camera and does an Incredible Hulk pose that shows off his terrifying trapezius muscles. “You ain’t nothing!’” You have never seen a man so committed to seeming to have lost all control.
Little Rascal Jean Darling:
Still, she said, her childhood wasn’t unhappy, just different. “A lot of people say their childhood was stolen,” she wrote in a 2014 interview on Reddit. “Mine was never stolen, I just worked a lot! I might have had more fun if my mother hadn’t spent all my money, but that’s it!”
From then on, Ford lived in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, in a concrete cell the size of a bathroom. Three hours a week, he was allowed outside to exercise, but even there he was alone and in a cage offering less freedom than a dog run. For his last seven years in prison, Ford refused to even go outside. He called the exercise pen “ridiculous.” Being in a solitary cage outdoors was more like a taunt than a respite.
The two oldest living people in the world, American Susannah Mushatt Jones and Italian Emma Morano-Martinuzzi, were both born in 1899, making them the last living human links to the 1800s. The USA Today profiled both women back in June. Here are the oldest people in the world right now:
Susannah Mushatt Jones; 6 July 1899; 116 years, 134 days
Emma Morano-Martinuzzi; 29 November 1899; 115 years, 353 days
Violet Brown; 10 March 1900; 115 years, 252 days
Nabi Tajima; 4 August 1900; 115 years, 105 days
Kiyoko Ishiguro; 4 March 1901; 114 years, 258 days
Since it includes the entire year of 1900, the 19th century has four total survivors. A couple more years and our living connection to that era will be gone.
Update: Susannah Mushatt Jones died in May 2016, leaving Emma Morano-Martinuzzi as the oldest living person as well as the last person alive who was born in the 1800s.
Update: The NY Times, reporting on Jones’ death, contains a small error (italics mine):
Mr. Young said Ms. Jones’s presumed successor is a 116-year-old woman from Italy named Emma Morano. Ms. Morano, who was born in November 1899, is the last person alive who is verified to have been born in the 19th century. The next-oldest American, Mr. Young said, is “only 113.”
Morano-Martinuzzi is indeed the last verified person to be born before 1900, but there are two others (Violet Brown and Nabi Tajima) who were born in the 19th century. Since the first century AD began on Jan 1, 1 (and not 0) and ended on Dec 31, 100, each subsequent century follows the same pattern. So the 19th century includes the year 1900 (but “the 1800s” do not). If you’re interested enough to read further, Stephen J. Gould wrote a whole book about this issue back in 1997 called Questioning the Millennium. Anyway, a little pedantry to annoy your loved ones with.
In the New Yorker, Matthew J.X. Malady writes about finding his deceased mother standing outside her house on Google Street View and, more generally, when technology clumsily reminds us of loved ones who are no longer with us.
When I reached my mother’s house, that all changed. First, I noticed that a gigantic American flag had been affixed to the mailbox post at the corner of the driveway. That was new. Then I spotted the fire pit in the front yard that my mom and her husband, my stepfather, used for block parties, and the grill on the patio, and my mom’s car. And then there she was, out front, walking on the path that leads from the driveway to the home’s front door. My mom.
At first I was convinced that it couldn’t be her, that I was just seeing things. When’s the last time you’ve spotted someone you know on Google Maps? I never had. And my mother, besides, is no longer alive. It couldn’t be her.
Facebook in particular has been dinged for inadvertent algorithmic cruelty, but they have recently been making strides in a better direction. (via @tcarmody)
A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.
That has changed since the NY Times’ N.R. Kleinfield wrote a piece on the life and death of a random New Yorker: The Lonely Death of George Bell.
In this story by Rafael Zoehler, a father who dies at 27 wrote his son a series of letters to be opened at several of life’s milestones, including WHEN YOU HAVE YOUR FIRST KISS, WHEN YOU BECOME A FATHER, and WHEN YOUR MOTHER IS GONE. This letter was entitled “WHEN I’M GONE”:
If you’re reading this, I’m dead. I’m sorry. I knew I was going to die.
I didn’t want to tell you what was going to happen, I didn’t want to see you crying. Well, it looks like I’ve made it. I think that a man who’s about to die has the right to act a little bit selfish.
Well, as you can see, I still have a lot to teach you. After all, you don’t know crap about anything. So I wrote these letters for you. You must not open them before the right moment, OK? This is our deal.
I love you. Take care of your mom. You’re the man of the house now.
PS: I didn’t write letters to your mom. She’s got my car.
Turns out, you can have too much of a good thing. Like water for instance…drink six liters of water and it can kill you. So can 85 chocolate bars. Or being almost 9 feet tall. Or listening to music at 185 db.
Oliver Sacks was a champion of one of humankind’s most admirable qualities: Curiosity. The neurologist and writer died on Monday. He wrote beautifully about his impending death in a piece published a couple weeks ago:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life…
Longform has a collection of links to some of Sacks’ most popular essays.
The Rosses were expecting twins but learned that one of the two, Thomas, wouldn’t live much past birth. They decided to donate Thomas’s body to science. And then, they decided to investigate just what it was they had given and how it had helped others. Great piece by Radiolab.
See also this piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The next day, Gray met James Zieske, the institute’s senior scientist, who told her “infant eyes are worth their weight in gold,” because, being so young, they have great regenerative properties. Thomas’ corneas were used in a study that could one day help cure corneal blindness.
Thirteen more studies had cited that study. Gray felt a new emotion: pride.
Artificial Killing Machine is an art installation that listens to a public database on US military drone strikes. When there’s a strike, a cap gun fires for every death.
This time based work accesses a public database on U.S. military drone strikes. When a drone strike occurs, the machine activates, and fires a children’s toy cap gun for every death that results. The raw information used by the installation is then printed. The materialized data is allowed to accumulate in perpetuity or until the life cycle of either the database or machine ends. A single chair is placed beneath the installation inviting the viewers to sit in the chair and experience the imagined existential risk.
The goal of the project is to breathe humanity back into data:
When individuals are represented purely as statistical data, they are stripped of their humanity and our connection to them is severed. Through the act of play and the force of imagination, this project aims to reconnect that which has been lost.
(via prosthetic knowledge)
I don’t quite know what I’m doing to myself these days. Last night was an episode of The Americans in which a marriage was ending, another family was trying to keep itself intact, and a young boy struggles to move on after his entire family dies. This morning, I watched an episode of Mad Men in which a mother tries to reconcile her differences with her daughter in the face of impending separation. And then, the absolute cake topper, a story by Matthew Teague that absolutely wrecked me. It’s about his cancer-stricken wife and the friend who comes and rescues an entire family, which is perhaps the truest and most direct thing I’ve ever read about cancer and death and love and friendship.
Since we had met, when she was still a teenager, I had loved her with my whole self. Only now can I look back on the fullness of our affection; at the time I could see nothing but one wound at a time, a hole the size of a dime, into which I needed to pack a fistful of material. Love wasn’t something I felt anymore. It was just something I did. When I finished, I would lie next to her and use sterile cotton balls to soak up her tears. When she finally slept, I would slip out of bed and go into our closet, the most isolated room in the house. Inside, I would wrap a blanket around my head, stuff it into my mouth, lie down and bury my head in a pile of dirty clothes, and scream.
There are very specific parts of all those stories that I identify with. I struggle with friendship. And with family. I worry about my children, about my relationships with them. I worry about being a good parent, about being a good parenting partner with their mom. How much of me do I really want to impart to them? I want them to be better than me, but I can’t tell them or show them how to do that because I’m me. I took my best shot at being better and me is all I came up with. What if I’m just giving them the bad parts, without even realizing it? God, this is way too much for a Monday.
ESPN’s Kate Fagan with Split Image, a look at depression and suicide in the age of social media.
On Instagram, Madison Holleran’s life looked ideal: Star athlete, bright student, beloved friend. But the photos hid the reality of someone struggling to go on.
(Life’s never as good as it looks on Facebook or as bad as it sounds on Twitter.)
In a series of three articles, Dianna Kenny examines the life expectancy of pop musicians, the myth of the 27 Club1, and how genre affects popular musicians’ life expectancy. It is from the third article that this chart is taken:
For male musicians across all genres, accidental death (including all vehicular incidents and accidental overdose) accounted for almost 20% of all deaths. But accidental death for rock musicians was higher than this (24.4%) and for metal musicians higher still (36.2%).
Suicide accounted for almost 7% of all deaths in the total sample. However, for punk musicians, suicide accounted for 11% of deaths; for metal musicians, a staggering 19.3%. At just 0.9%, gospel musicians had the lowest suicide rate of all the genres studied.
Murder accounted for 6.0% of deaths across the sample, but was the cause of 51% of deaths in rap musicians and 51.5% of deaths for hip hop musicians, to date. This could be due to these genres’ strong associations with drug-related crime and gang culture.
Heart-related fatalities accounted for 17.4% of all deaths across all genres, while 28% of blues musicians died of heart-related causes. Similarly, the average percentage of deaths accounted for by cancer was 23.4%. Older genres such as folk (32.3%) and jazz (30.6%) had higher rates of fatal cancers than other genres.
In the case of the newer genres, it’s worth pointing out that members of these genres have not yet lived long enough to fall into the highest-risk ages for heart- and liver-related illnesses. Consequently, they had the lowest rates of death in these categories.
From the cool devices in our hands, to the software on our screens, to the smooth stylings of Jony Ive’s Apple product video voiceovers, it’s clear this is the era of design. Since design has touched and changed so many parts of our lives, isn’t it time that we redesigned death? The chief creative officer at one of the top design firms in the world thinks it is:
With just a little attention, it seemed — a few metaphorical mirrors affixed to our gurneys at just the right angle — he might be able to refract some of the horror and hopelessness of death into more transcendent feelings of awe and wonder and beauty.
From Jon Mooallem in California Sunday Magazine: Death, Redesigned. (I like where you’re going with the embalming and the eternal darkness, I just think it could pop a little more.)
A week ago, Paul Kalanithi, who was 37, died from lung cancer. He had recently finished his neurosurgery residency at Stanford and was a father to an infant daughter.
He was also a writer. If you haven’t read his “How Long Have I Got Left?” or “Before I Go,” you should.
In this video, he talks about how time changes as you face your mortality. “Clocks are now kind of irrelevant to me,” he says. “Time, where it used to have kind of a linear progression feel to it, now feels more like a space.”
Jessamyn West writes about the nuts and bolts of dealing with the death of her techie dad, including wresting control from the hidden computer controlling his house and digitally impersonating him to use his apps and cancel cable.
My dad’s retirement home was not quite so high tech but it was designed to provide a certain level of creature comforts with minimal inputs from him. Set it and forget it. An X-10 system turned most of the lights on and off on a schedule. Some of this was pretty straightforward “Turn on the porch lights after dark.” and some was a bit more esoteric “Turn off the office lights at 10 pm so that I’ll know it’s time for bed.” He knew the ruleset. I did not. I’d be working on an article or reading a book and suddenly be plunged into total darkness. I’d poke at some wall switches that would sometimes turn the lights back on.
The system was controlled by a laptop. The laptop died. I removed the hard drive to get at the config files. This project went on a lengthy To Do list and never rose to the top. The lights kept turning on and off. Over time their schedules got out of sync. The driveway lights would stay on for days. The porch lights would never come on, or turn on at 6:15 pm and then off at 6:27. Sometimes they’d just blink on and off and we’d be all “Did you see that?” My sister and I kept lists, tried to discern patterns. I pulled the switches off the walls, only to find that they were just stuck on with tape, with no actual wires underneath. Somewhere in some wall there was a transmitter sending out signals that only the lights could hear.
It’s oddly comforting that even in the digital age, our loved ones can still haunt us from their graves.
In their latest full episode, Radiolab examines the concept of worth, particularly when dealing with things that are more or less priceless (like human life and nature).
This episode, we make three earnest, possibly foolhardy, attempts to put a price on the priceless. We figure out the dollar value for an accidental death, another day of life, and the work of bats and bees as we try to keep our careful calculations from falling apart in the face of the realities of life, and love, and loss.
I have always really liked Radiolab, but it seems like the show has shifted into a different gear with this episode. The subject seemed a bit meatier than their usual stuff, the reporting was close to the story, and the presentation was more straightforward, with fewer of the audio experiments that some found grating. I spent some time driving last weekend and I listened to this episode of Radiolab, an episode of 99% Invisible, and an episode of This American Life, and it occurred to me that as 99% Invisible has been pushing quite effectively into Radiolab’s territory, Radiolab is having to up their game in response, more toward the This American Life end of the spectrum. Well, whatever it is, it’s great seeing these three radio shows (and dozens of others) push each other to excellence.
Astonishing, if you think about it: that a person could live half his life without coming face-to-face with the one thing that unites us all. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Eric Puchner pays a visit to a sixth-generation funeral director who wants to reacquaint us all with the uncomfortable, eye-opening realities of death.
Update: The Death, Sex & Money podcast has a good episode about the same funeral director, Caleb Wilde, whose blog is worth a read. (via @mims)
Atul Gawande’s best selling Being Mortal is getting the Frontline treatment on PBS this January. Here’s the trailer:
Atul Gawande’s new book about medicine and death, Being Mortal, is out today. Two excerpts of the book are available online, The Best Possible Day:
I spoke with more than 200 people about their experiences with aging or serious illness, or dealing with a family member’s — many of them my own patients, some in my own family. I interviewed and shadowed front-line staff members in old age homes, palliative-care specialists, hospice workers, geriatricians, nursing home reformers, pioneers, and contrarians. And among the many things I learned, here are the two most fundamental.
First, in medicine and society, we have failed to recognize that people have priorities that they need us to serve besides just living longer. Second, the best way to learn those priorities is to ask about them. Hence the wide expert agreement that payment systems should enable health professionals to take sufficient time to have such discussions and tune care accordingly.
and No Risky Chances:
You don’t have to spend much time with the elderly or those with terminal illness to see how often medicine fails the people it is supposed to help. The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. These days are spent in institutions — nursing homes and intensive-care units — where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life.
Too many books to read! Gotta make time for this one though.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux is not really a story about Greg Maddux. Or sports. It’s about Jeremy Collins’ friend Jason Kenney, demons, self-control, determination, friendship, competitiveness, and loss.
Jason kept a picture of Maddux above his desk in our dorm room at Young Harris College in the north Georgia mountains. A beautiful athlete, the best on campus, Jason played only intramurals and spent serious time at his desk. A physics workhorse and calculus whiz, he kept Maddux’s image at eye-level.
Shuffling and pardoning down the aisle to our seats, Jason stopped and squeezed my shoulder. “Look,” he said.
Maddux strode toward home, hurling the ball through the night.
It’s 2014. I’m thirty-seven. My wife and daughter are both asleep. I’m a thousand miles from the stadium-turned-parking-lot. On YouTube, Kenny Lofton of the American League Champion Cleveland Indians looks at the first pitch for a ball. Inside, low. I don’t remember the call. I remember all of us standing, holding our breath. Then I remember light. Thousands of lights. Waves of tiny diamonds. The whole stadium flashing and Jason, who would die five months later on the side of a south Georgia highway, leaning into my ear and whispering, “Maddux.”
Great, great story. As Tom Junod remarked on Twitter, “Every once in a while, a writer throws everything he’s got into a story. This is one of those stories.”
Sometimes, bees don’t want to be domesticated. The rules of nature, laid down in genetic code and behavioral norms over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, are difficult to bend. John Knight discovered this while exploring beekeeping as a new hobby.
While a newborn queen may seem ruthless, the success of a beehive hinges on allegiance to its queen. Though she can mate with an average of 12 different drones, there is only one queen, which makes for a hive of closely related bees. As a new queen begins to produce her own pheromones, the hive slowly aligns with her as the old bees die and new workers hatch. In a sense, the hive is genetically wired to be loyal to the monarchy. If the hive was to raise multiple queens, or if the workers were to start laying eggs, the interests of the population would slowly fracture.
Surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande has a new book about death coming out in October called Being Mortal.
Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.
Gawande, a practicing surgeon, addresses his profession’s ultimate limitation, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for patients and families. Gawande offers examples of freer, more socially fulfilling models for assisting the infirm and dependent elderly, and he explores the varieties of hospice care to demonstrate that a person’s last weeks or months may be rich and dignified.
This piece Gawande wrote for the New Yorker in 2010 was probably the genesis of the book. I maintain a very short list of topics I’d like to write books about and death is one of them. Not from a macabre Vincent Price / Tim Burton perspective…more like this stuff. Dying is something that everyone has to deal with many times during the course of their life and few seem to have a handle on how to deal with it. That’s fascinating. Can’t wait to read Gawande’s book.
Rather than slip away gradually into death as a different person, a woman with Alzheimer’s disease decided to commit suicide while she was still herself. Planning for her death may have helped her family with their grief.
And even though Emily Bem had supported her mother’s decision, this date — the cold reality of it — was very hard to accept.
“I said she seemed too well and it seemed too soon. I felt really angry. I felt they were all wrong,” Emily says.
And so to ease the process for their daughter and their friends, Sandy and Daryl announced that the Sunday before, everyone would gather to honor Sandy.
“We thought that would be a nice thing,” says Daryl Bem. “It made a lot more sense than a funeral where she wouldn’t be.”
On that Sunday, family and friends sat on the white couch in the living room to talk about Sandy’s life, much of which, according to Emily, Sandy had by that point forgotten.
“She just listened and listened and listened, and at the end she would say, ‘Wow, I did that? Amazing. Amazing!’ “
Emily says when she showed up at the meeting she was still very angry, convinced that her mother should hold on. Emily, who also lives in Ithaca, has a toddler. She wanted more time with her mother. But over the course of the meeting, this feeling began to ebb.